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"The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany begins her life's work at 72" a biography by Molly Peacock

Updated on December 16, 2015

It is a commonly held belief that youth has the edge on innovation and originality and old age means stasis. Not so! Creative spirit never really retires and in some cases, is strengthened by extensive life experience and the wisdom of maturity. Late bloomers prove that discovery, engagement and productive work can continue to flourish in the "golden years." The life story of Mary Delany outlined in the book "The Paper Garden" by Molly Peacock, shows the development of a woman's true vocation at an advanced age. Mrs. Delany's intricate paper botanical mosaics - all 985 of them - were conceived, cut, pasted and classified during the last decade of her life.

"Mrs. Delany" by John Opie, 1782
"Mrs. Delany" by John Opie, 1782

Training to be a Lady

In addition to the portfolio of botanical images that comprises her most significant legacy, thousands of pages of letters that Mary Delany wrote to close friends and relatives have survived to flesh out the artist's biography. Author Molly Peacock sifts through the events of Delany's life and relates each phase to one of the floral collages, as if her late artistic work was a process of remembering and assembling the facts of her autobiography. Born in 1700 in the Wiltshire village of Coulston, Mary Granville was the daughter of aristocratic parents. At the age of eight, she was sent to live with an upper-class aunt at Whitehall, to be educated in courtly etiquette, the craft of embroidery, the art of drawing, music, French and dancing with the hope of someday becoming a Maid of Honour to the Queen. Politics revised that plan - when Queen Anne died in 1714 without an heir and George I assumed the throne, Mary returned to her family in Little Chelsea.

Rosa gallica, Cluster Damask Rose 1780
Rosa gallica, Cluster Damask Rose 1780
Detail of Physalis (Winter Cherry)
Detail of Physalis (Winter Cherry)

First marriage

At the age of 17, Mary's uncle arranged her marriage to Alexander Pendarves, a well-to-do 61 year old drunkard. The legal connection that was intended to improve the family fortune thoroughly disgusted the young girl. She recounts her feelings in a letter to a friend, "How can I describe to you, my dear friend, the cruel agitation of my mind! Whilst my uncle talked to me, I did not once interrupt him; surprise, tender concern for my father; a consciousness of my own little merit, and the great abhorrence I had to Pendarves, raised such a confusion of thoughts in my mind, that it deprived me of the power of utterance, and after some moment's silence I burst into tears." Mary endured six unhappy years as the wife of Pendarves and woke up one morning to find him dead beside her in bed. A widow at age 23, she dutifully observed a period of mourning and then picked up the pieces of her life.

Finding her forte

Mary spent twenty years as a single woman, sharing a house just outside of London with a female friend and attending concerts, plays, and parties. She was courted by eligible bachelors, became a friend of Jonathan Swift and Handel, and immersed herself in the gossip, scandal and intrigue of eighteenth century high society. It wasn't until she took a trip to Ireland at the age of 43 that she met the love of her life, Patrick Delany. She visited his estate near Dublin named "Delville" and admired the 11 acre garden with its circular terrace, fruit orchards, bowling green and flower walks. This property became a twenty-five year project for both husband and wife during the Delanys' marriage and provided inspiration for Mary's later work with flower collages. In a letter to her sister she described her delight in planning and nurturing the garden.

"Our garden is now a wilderness of sweets. The violets, sweet briar, and primroses perfume the air, and the thrushes are full of melody and make our concert complete....I have been planting sweets in my "Pearly Bower" - honeysuckles, sweet briar, roses and jessamine to climb up the trees that compose it, and for the carpet, violets, primroses and cowlips."

Detail of Passiflora laurifolia, 1777
Detail of Passiflora laurifolia, 1777
Book cover, "The Paper Garden" by Molly Peacock
Book cover, "The Paper Garden" by Molly Peacock

Discovery at age 72

Patrick Delaney died in 1768 and Mary moved into the house of the Duchess of Portland, a wealthy friend who was an avid collector of natural specimens and antiquities. While nursing a swollen foot that had temporarily immobilized her, 72 year-old Mary noticed that the petal of a red geranium looked exactly like a piece of paper. Taking scissors in hand, she cut out individual life-size petals and pasted them to a black paper background. Molly Peacock describes the unique method in this passage.

"Mrs. D., which is what they affectionately call her at the British Museum, dubbed her paper and petal paste-up a flower mosaick, and in the next ten years she completed nearly a thousand cut-paper botanicals so accurate that botanists still refer to them - each one so energetically dramatic that it seems to leap out from the dark as onto a lit stage. Unlike pale botanical drawings, they are all done on deep black backgrounds. She drenched the front of white laid paper with black watercolor to obtain a stage-curtain-like darkness. Once dry, she'd paste onto these backgrounds hundreds - and I mean hundreds upon hundreds - of the tiniest dots, squiggles, scoops, moons, slivers, islands, and loops of brightly colored paper, slowly building up the verisimilitude of flora."

The original collection of collages compiled as Mrs. Delaney's masterwork "Flora Delanica" is housed in the British Museum and examples are occasionally presented in touring museum exhibitions.

Lessons from "The Paper Garden"

The frontispiece of Molly Peacock's book includes a dedication to "all those for whom it's never too late." Instead of accepting conventional limitations associated with intellect and physical condition in old age, we can embrace as role models those individuals whose lives are marked by significant achievements in their later years. Peacock's engaging account of the life of Mrs. Delany charts a fascinating historical period and a creative journey that readers can interpret as a call for personal reflection and renewed faith in talent and latent ambition. In the words of Mary Delany, at age 50, "How can people say we grow indifferent as we grow old? It is just the reverse...."

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    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Voted up and awesome. Thanks for sharing this unique and beautiful artwork. I love it. I can't imagine how she did it - the attention to detail and the patience it requires!

    • Vanderleelie profile image
      Author

      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      Dolores: Yes, it's an incredible body of work involving a lot of keen observation and precision. At art school we were always told that collage had been invented by the Cubists, but apparently Mrs. Delany was well ahead of that group. I haven't seen the originals, but plan to view them the next time I'm in London. Thanks for your comment.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      What an amazing story! I've seen paper sculptures such as this (at an exhibit at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center), and surely this woman pioneered that art! This is a wonderful hub, full of great details and compelling information. Thanks!

      Voted up, useful, beautiful and interesting.

    • Vanderleelie profile image
      Author

      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      Marcy: Mrs. Delany was indeed a pioneer and the inventor of collage. In reproduction the flowers look like conventional paintings, but in fact, each petal, stem and leaf was pieced from bits of coloured paper. The end result is something quite obsessive, but remarkable, and I was pleased to read that the collages are still studied by botanists doing research.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

      Such an incredible life she had and you've given us a fine introduction to her work. Your closing is inspiringly remarkable and should be taken to heart as people age.

    • Vanderleelie profile image
      Author

      Vanderleelie 4 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      RTalloni: Thank you for your comment. I do think that Mrs. Delany is a wonderful role model for those who see life as a continuous learning experience. She discovered something new at age 72 and spent the rest of her years exploring that art form with great enthusiasm. We can all be inspired by her example!

    • KrisL profile image

      KrisL 4 years ago from S. Florida

      Voted Awesome and tweeted.

      As someone who wonders whether I'll be able to accomplish all I hope to at a mere 51, Mrs Delany is an inspiration.

    • Vanderleelie profile image
      Author

      Vanderleelie 4 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      KrisL: Thanks for your comment. The story of Mrs. Delany offers hope to all who reach a certain age and wonder where to direct their energy.

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