Artists Who Started Late in Life: Mary Delany
Mary Delany, decoupage artist
Artists are memory makers… or rather, memory keepers. What we do is immortalize a time, an era, a community, a person in a portrait. It is why we are still fascinated with a little known lady captured in the Mona Lisa. It is why an era that lasted a little more than 11 years and dancers who only danced 2 years at best, are immortalized forever in the posters of the Moulin Rouge by the artist Toulouse-Lautrec. It is why the era of this artist will be forever remembered. This is a story of an artist who didn’t begin her art till after her husband passed and she had free time on her hands. She was 71 but didn’t let the years go idly by.
The sad fact is that artists feel deeply, all the highs and all the lows of life. Sometimes I envy people like my mother, who have a very “even keel.” People like that seldom get mad or upset (although when they do, look out). However they also don’t get overly jovial or jocular. Every day is a straight line from sunrise to sunset.
Gratefully, I don’t live like that. I am one of the artists. When I am happy, I am a very ecstatic, giggling fool. And when I’m sad, I am in the dismal dumps. No halfway for me. I feel it all and it often shows up in my work as it shows up in this artist’s work. This is the story of Mary Delany, decoupage artist.
Mary Delany (1700-1788)
Mary Delany, a member of the English Bluestocking group, was also a famous decoupage artist who began her career at the age of 71. She had long been an avid artist, however it wasn’t until after her husband passed away that she began creating her detailed depictions of plants using tissue paper and hand coloration, creating over 1,000 paper flowers in the last years of her life.
Life for women in the 18th century
Mary Delany was born at Coulston, Wiltshire to a noble family. She had one older brother and one younger brother and a sister. When she was still young her parents moved to London where she came into close contact with the Court, where she even came into contact with Handel and became a close personal friend and loyal supporter of the composer.
She was taught languages, history, music, and needlework, but she pursued the art of paper cutting from an early age. At the age of 17 she was unhappily married to a 60 year old member of parliament due to her parents’ financial dependence. Before they were married 2 years, Mary was required to nurse her husband’s chronic gout until he finally died and left her a young widow. This turned out to be a blessing for her. Widows were allowed to move freely in society where young unmarried women were not. She was also free to pursue her own interests without the oversight of any man. This is a sad reality in the 18th century that women mostly were not their own person unless widowed.
Can you tell these are collaged cut paper?
Marriage to Dr Delany
Mary was quite articulate and a witty letter writer, many of which have been preserved for posterity. Because she had no home of her own, after her first husband died, she spent time living with a variety of relatives and friends. While with friends in Ireland, she made the acquaintance of Dr. Patrick Delany, an Irish clergyman. She later married him and moved with him to Dublin. They both had an interest in botany and gardening. It was during her marriage to Dr. Delany that Mary was allowed time to hone her skills as an artist and even encouraged to do so. She was good at drawing, painting and cutting paper, but best known for paper-cutting.
From 71 to 88 years old, time for art.
Mary and the Dr. were married 25 years when Dr. Delany died at the age of 84, and Mary found herself once again, a widow. She was 68 at the time. She spent more and more time creating cut out paper artworks as a way of dealing with her grief. She used tissue paper and hand colored papers to produce her pieces. Decoupage was the fashion for ladies of the court at that time. Mary called her work Paper Mosaiks, and from the age of 71 to 88, when her eyesight failed her, she created 1,700 depictions of plants and flowers.
Why must women be driven to the necessity of marrying? A state that should always be a matter of choice! And if a young woman has not fortune sufficient to maintain her in the situation she has been bred to, what can she do, but marry?— Mary Delany
Supported by the King and Queen
She used her papers to build up layers and sometimes had hundreds of pieces in a finished creation. To keep it accurate, she would have the specimen in front of her and would actually dissect it so that she could more accurately examine it and carefully portray each. It was her love of botany and her desire to be accurate that causes her work to be so amazing. Each piece looks more like a real flower or plant than a cut paper collage glued to a black card. Her work was so well loved and sought after by the royals that when her patroness, the Dowager Duchess died, King George III and Queen Charlotte gave her a small house and a pension of 300 pounds a year to live on. They even had any curious or beautiful plants taken to her when they were in bloom.
Mrs Delany and Her Flower Collages
In 1980, a descendant of Mary Delany’s sister Anne, published a book on her work: Mrs. Delany and Her Flower Collages. Her work has outlived her and her independent style and writings have also. I love how beautiful and realistic her work looks and I’m amazed at the detail.
I am an artist and in particular a collage artist. I appreciate the stories and struggles that other artists have had to endure to make the mark in history that some of them have made. Many times it is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Other times it is a matter of patience for when the public is ready for your style. I know that it seems like artists who are not very talented or who show no more talent than some others, achieve fame, however it is a lot of chance, happenstance and who you know more than talent most of the time. In the case of Mary Delany, I think the recognition she received from the crown was well deserved and allowed her to continue creating even without a husband for income. It’s a shame there is no record of her ever selling her work but she enriched future generations just the same. Remarkable work.
Vanity stands at my elbow in this while, and animates me by a thousand agreeable promises.— Mary Delany