The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work] at 72

Biography, art history, botanical study – none of these terms do sufficient justice to Molly Peacock’s expansive, lyrical and thoroughly readable account of the life of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700-1788). Over a period of ten years, Delany created nearly a thousand cut-paper botanical images of flowers from all over the world. Living in a period of intense botanical exploration and investigation, Delany had access to Kew for specimens through her friendship with Sir Joseph Banks.

The parallels between Peacock’s contemporary investigation into 18th century artistic life and Delany’s progress towards ‘a new way of imitating flowers’ add depth and a personal warmth to the story. Peacock considers eleven of the botanical collages, including ‘Opium Poppy’ (Papaver somniferum), ‘Magnolia’ (Magnolia grandiflora), ‘Bloodroot’ (Sanguinaria canadensis), ‘Portlandia’ (Portlandia grandiflora) and ‘Winter Cherry’ (Physalis alkekengi) in great detail, relating each to stages of Delany’s personal and artistic development. Occasionally the botanical analogies feel a little strained, the mental contortions necessary to compare human and plant lives a little jarring, but on the whole these parallels enrich the text as they suggest echoes of life in art, in nature. As Peacock writes about the flowers in the Delany mosaics:

Each of Mrs. Delany’s flower mosaicks is a portrait, highly individual, full of personality, the bloom posed as a human figure might be positioned in a painter’s portrait… The flowers are like dancers. Like daydreamers. Like women blinking in silent adoration. Like children playing. Like queens reigning or divas belting out their arias. Like courtesans lying on bedclothes. Like girls hanging their heads in shame. Like, like, like. Along with the scissors, the scalpel, the bodkin, the tweezers, the mosaicks make use of one of the main tools of the poet: simile. By comparing one thing to another, a simile leaves the original as it is – say, just a flower – but also states what that is like, making a threshold into another world.

Art and nature are seen, by Delany and Peacock, as being intrinsically linked. Delany’s eye for detail, her botanical dissections and biological knowledge underpin the beauty and verisimilitude of her art. Science is an intrinsic part her of artistic endeavour and her art reveals the glory and power of science. As Peacock writes ‘The lines between science and art in [Delany’s] day were fluid, but in 1966 [the time of Peacock’s education] they had become as thick as the stays in eighteenth century ladies’ clothes.’

In 1993, when I began my university education, an interest in mathematical and scientific issues within the arts (in my case, English Literature) was still viewed suspiciously in many quarters – as if it somehow diluted the essence of language and art, rather than enhancing it. In 2006 interdisciplinary studies were becoming more mainstream and I wrote an MA dissertation on the ways in which contemporary science profoundly affected the style and structure of the early nineteenth century novel. The tyranny of subject boundaries was dissolving and both the arts and sciences were benefitting from increased integration. This integration continues to develop, with many universities now running courses such as ‘ecocriticism’, ‘digital studies’, ‘interdisciplinary work for policy-making’ and ‘wild writing – literature and the environment’. We are rediscovering the power of connections, of contextual knowledge and mutual respect which an eighteenth century education took for granted.

The Paper Garden celebrates Mary Delany’s life, her artistic endeavours and the way her mosaics reveal a love of both art and science through her minute observation of the plant material. This is a book which offers hope for all of us who feel our best is yet to come. It is a book for art lovers and plant lovers alike. Indeed, when leafing through the Delany mosaics, it’s hard to imagine being one, without becoming the other.

 

The extensive collection of flower mosaics is available to view on the British Museum’s online catalogue – for individual flower mosaics mentioned in the text, click on the links above. Individual mosaics can be studied or the entire Flora Delanica viewed, with 1,005 images held in the catalogue.

If you have enjoyed this post, The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, (Aff. link) is published by Bloomsbury and available as an eBook or paperback. Follow the blog below to get updates on new reviews in ‘Write Plant, Write Place’. At the moment I’m enjoying reading a trio of books about trees…

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