I’ve been taking a collage course this past fall and someone mentioned this book to me because Mrs. Delaney may have been the earliest creator of “mosaick” flowers. My collages tend to be either conceptual or abstract or a combination of both, Mrs. Delaney created intricate and botanically accurate flowers.
She was born in 1700 into an aristocratic family, although one on the bottom rung and without much money. Her early life included being married at the age of seventeen to a boorish sixty-year-old man. After seven years he died and she reveled in her freedom—including twenty years of freedom from matrimony.
During this time she kept up a voluminous correspondence with her sister Anne. The letters Anna kept enabled Molly Peacock to understand Mary Delaney.
At the age of forty-three Mary met Patrick Delaney, a Protestant Irish minister and she moved to Ireland. She and her husband resided in Ireland for over twenty-five years. Over time they created a beautiful garden and it is there Mary learned about the particulars of flowers.
Patrick died when Mary was sixty-eight. Their marriage had been blissful and she was distraught. For awhile she couldn’t find a way to proceed as a widow. Her good friend the Duchess of Portland took it upon herself to look after her and provide a place for Mary to live within her own home.
At the age of seventy Mary Delaney noticed the shape and color of a geranium petal that had fallen onto a dark table. Isolated from the flower she examined the petal and noticed that there was a piece of paper of a similar shade. That moment triggered her exploration into a world of collage.
She began to create paper flowers—“imitating flowers”. In order to do this accurately she took apart and studied flowers. Some of her compositions were made up of hundreds of pieces of paper. The Duchess owned a huge and quite imposing natural history collections and both encouraged Mary and championed her art. Soon Mary began to receive specimens from the Royal Botanical Gardens as well as specimens from different parts of the world.
Mary Peacock is obviously enamored with the story of Mary Delaney and weaves some of her own memoir into the story. At times that works seamlessly and at other times it is a stretch.
Reading The Paper Garden is a bit like being taken on a journey into a fairyland. Mary Delaney started on this journey at the age of seventy and completed close to one thousand flower collages by the time she reached eighty-three.
At some point in time I’d love to see her collages—up close—at the British Museum.