In 1772, upon the death of her second husband, Mary Delany arose from her grief, picked up a pair of scissors, and, at the age of seventy-two, created a new art form: mixed-media collage. Over the next decade, Mrs. Delany produced an astonishing 985 botanically correct, breathtaking cut-paper flowers, now housed in the British Museum and referred to as the Flora Delanica. As she tracks the extraordinary life of Delany-friend of George Frideric Handel and Jonathan Swift-internationally acclaimed poet Molly Peacock weaves in delicate parallels in her own life and, in doing so, creates a profound and beautiful examination of the nature of creativity and art. This gorgeously designed book, featuring thirty-five full-color illustrations, is to be devoured as voraciously as one of the court dinners it describes.
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Molly Peacock is the award-winning author of five volumes of poetry, including The Second Blush, and a memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and the Times Literary Supplement. A transplanted New Yorker, she lives in Toronto.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Imagine starting your life’s work at seventy-two. At just that age, Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (May 14, 1700–April 15, 1788), a fan of George Frideric Handel, a sometime dinner partner of satirist Jonathan Swift, a wearer of green-hooped satin gowns, and a fiercely devoted subject of blond King George iii, invented a precursor of what we know as collage. One afternoon in 1772 she noticed how a piece of colored paper matched the dropped petal of a geranium. After making that vital imaginative connection between paper and petal, she lifted the eighteenth-century equivalent of an X-Acto blade (she’d have called it a scalpel) or a pair of filigree-handled scissors – the kind that must have had a nose so sharp and delicate that you could almost imagine it picking up a scent. With the instrument alive in her still rather smooth-skinned hand, she began to maneuver, carefully cutting the exact geranium petal shape from the scarlet paper.
Then she snipped out another.
And another, and another, with the trance-like efficiency of repetition – commencing the most remarkable work of her life.
Her previous seventy-two years in England and Ireland had already spanned the creation of Kew Gardens, the rise of English paper making, Jacobites thrown into the Tower of London, forced marriages, women’s floral-embroidered stomachers, and the use of the flintlock musket – all of which, except for the musket, she knew very personally.
She was born Mary Granville in 1700 at her father’s country house in the Wiltshire village of Coulston, matching her life with the start of this new century, one that would be shaped by many of her friends and acquaintances. She would see the rise of the coffee house (where she took refuge on the day of the coronation of George ii) and of fabulously elaborate court gowns (one of which she designed). She would hear first-hand of the voyage of Captain Cook (financed partly by her friend the Duchess of Portland) and be astounded by that voyage’s horticultural bonanza (instigated by her acquaintance Sir Joseph Banks). She would attend her hero Handel’s Messiah. She would share a meal with the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni and read in a rapture Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa. She would flirt with Jonathan Swift. In middle age, at mid-century, she would see the truth of his cudgel of an essay on Irish poverty, and in her old age she would feel the sting of a revolution on the other side of the world that divided North America into Canada and the United States.
By the time she commenced her great work, she had long outlived her uncle, the selfish Lord Lansdowne (a minor poet and playwright and patron of Alexander Pope); she had survived a marriage at age seventeen to Alexander Pendarves, a drunken sixty-year-old squire who left her nothing but a widow’s pension; she had tried to get a court position and found herself in a bust-up of a relationship with the peripatetic Lord Baltimore. But with a life-saving combination of propriety and inner fire, she also designed her own clothes, took drawing lessons with Louis Goupy, cultivated stalwart, lifelong friends (and watched her mentor William Hogarth paint a portrait of one of them), played the harpsichord and attended John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, owned adorable cats, and wrote six volumes’ worth of letters – most of them to her sister, Anne Granville Dewes (1701–61), signifying a deep, cherished relationship that anyone with a sister would kill for.
She bore no children, but at forty-three she allowed herself to be kidnapped by love and to flout her family to marry Jonathan Swift’s friend Dean Patrick Delany, a Protestant Irish clergyman. They lived at Delville, an eleven-acre estate near Dublin, where Mary attended to a multitude of crafts, from shell decoration to crewelwork, and, with the Dean, renovated his lands into one of the first Picturesque gardens in the British Isles.
But she made the spectacular mental leap between what she saw and what she cut four years after he died, and eleven years after her sister died. She was staying with her insomniac friend Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, the Duchess Dowager of Portland, at the fabulous Bulstrode, an estate of many acres in Buckinghamshire. The Duchess, who would stay up being read to for most of the night and rarely rose before noon, was one of the richest women in England. Her Dutch-gabled fortress, presiding over its own park, with its own aviary, gardens, and private zoo, housed her collections of shells and minerals, and later the Portland Vase, a Roman antiquity which now occupies a spot in the British Museum. By then the two women had been friends for more than four decades. (They met when Margaret was a little girl and Mary was in her twenties. Margaret would always have been referred to by her title, except by those of us centuries later who seek to know her on a first-name basis. Mary would have called Margaret “Duchess,” and Margaret would have called Mary “Mrs.”)
Mary Delany took the organic shapes she had cut and recomposed them in the mirror likeness of that geranium, pasting up an exact, life-sized replica of the flower on a piece of black paper.
Then the Duchess popped in.
She couldn’t tell the paper flower from the real one.
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.
“I have invented a new way of imitating flowers,” she wrote with astonishing understatement to her niece in 1772.1
How did she have the eyesight to do it, let alone the physical energy? How, with her eighth-decade knuckles and wrists, did she manage the dexterity? Did her arm muscles not seize up? Now Mrs. D.’s works rustle in leather-edged volumes in the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings Study Room, where they have been sequestered since her descendant, Lady Llanover, donated them in 1895.
Seventy-two years old. It gives a person hope.
Who doesn’t hold out the hope of starting a memorable project at a grand old age? A life’s work is always unfinished and requires creativity till the day a person dies. Even if you’ve managed major accomplishments throughout your life and don’t really need a model for making a mark, you do need one for enriching an ongoing existence.
Where was she when she cut out her first mosaick? In the spacious ground-floor apartments that the Duchess had assigned her at Bulstrode. What time was it? Probably sometime in the morning. At night, with short candles burning (she preferred short candles because they shed more intense, lower light), it would have been time for embroidery or handiwork. Was it messy? Oh, it was messy. The Duchess was always having to clean up all their projects when she was expecting guests: her vast collection of shells and their flaking, her minerals and their dust, her exotic plants and their shedding particles of leaves.
Mrs. Delany did not pick up a quill pen, nor did she draw. Instead, she entered a mesmerized state induced by close observation. If you have ever looked at a word so long that it becomes unfamiliar, you have crossed into a similar state, seizing on detail, then seizing up, because that very focus blurs the context of meaning. This is the mental ambience in which a ghost of something can appear. A memory. An atmosphere of a time in life long gone but now present and almost palpable to the touch. Touch is the operative word here because Mary Delany touched many implements. According to those who’ve tried to recreate her technique, Mrs. Delany used tweezers, a bodkin (an embroidery tool for poking holes), perhaps a thin, flat bone folder (shaped like a tongue depressor and made for creasing paper), brushes of various kinds, mortar and pestle for grinding pigment, bowls to contain ox gall (the bile of cows which when mixed with paint made it flow more smoothly) and more bowls to contain the honey that would plasticize the pigment for her inky backgrounds, pieces of glass or board to fix her papers, pins to hang her papers to dry.2 It was a feast for the tactile sense; it was dirty, smelly, prodigious.
If you make an appointment to see the flower mosaicks in the Prints and Drawings Study Room of the British Museum, they will let you hold these miracles by the edges of their mats (provided you borrow a pair of chalky curatorial gloves) or even let you turn the pages of their albums. I dare you not to release a dumbfounded syllable or two out of sheer disbelief and disturb the whole staid mahogany room. The flowers are portraits of the possibilities of age. They are aged. They can be portraits of sexual intensity – but softened. Softer, and drier, as our sexuality becomes. Yet they also can be simple botany, nearly accurate representations of specimens. They all come out of darkness, intense and vaginal, bright on their black backgrounds as if, had she possessed one, she had shined a flashlight on nine hundred and eighty-five flowers’ cunts.
Flowers are plants’ sexual organs, after all. There are only four parts a person has to remember that each flower has in common, no matter how different they look: sepals (the leaves that encase the bud), petals, stamens (the male organs), and pistils (the female organs). The work Mrs. Delany labeled her “first essay,” the Scarlet Geranium and Lobelia cardinalis, resembles two pressed flowers in ladylike quietude, but a bully of inspiration begins to burst forth in the ones she began to create after that, muscular, vibrant, petiolate. They do not exude the full-flesh sexuality of the flower paintings that Georgia O’Keeffe executed in her sensual thirties, but they are sensuous in the tender, yielding way of deeply adult touch.
As they veer between the dignified and the sensual, the flower mosaicks seem to be as complex as Mrs. D.’s personality. They hold the opposites of intrepidity and shyness, inspired daring and the deliberate anonymity that frustrated her beloved husband Patrick Delany yet endeared her to him. (He wanted her to show off, to play the harpsichord or dance in company, and though she was reputed to be a stunning musician and a delightful dancer, she would adamantly refuse.) But don’t confuse her with the prissy ladies in nineteenth-century novels. She lived a century before, when politeness did not mean squeamishness, when elaborate manners existed side by side with blood and bile. Mary Granville, then Pendarves, then Delany was a complicated character in a multi-leveled, socially ornate world. But if a role model in her seventies isn’t layered with contradictions – as we all come to be – then what good is she? Why bother to cut the silhouette of another’s existence and place it against our own if it isn’t as incongruous, ambiguous, inconsistent, and paradoxical as our own lives are?
A few of the papers she used – all of the papers in the eighteenth century were handmade – in fact were wallpapers, but mostly she painted large sheets of rag paper with watercolor, let them dry, then cut from them the hundreds of pieces she needed to reproduce – well, to re-evoke might be a better word – the flower she was portraying. There is no reproduced hue that matches the thrill of color in nature, yet Mrs. D. went after the original kick of natural color, and she did it like a painter. If you look at photographic reproductions of her work in a book like this, you may swear to yourself that her flowers are painted. But if you go to the British Museum Web site,3 zoom in on the image, then zoom in again and again, at last you will see the complicated overlapping layers of cut paper that this book shows in enlargements of details.
The black background of the mosaicks meant that Mrs. Delany downplayed light sources and shadows, as she was taught. The conventions of English botanical painting intentionally aimed to depict the form of each specimen with utmost clarity.4 Her flowers are, for the most part, botanically accurate, but not realistic. They provoke a person to understand that there is a material difference between accuracy and realism. The full flower heads with their main flower parts, along with the buds, the vines, the stems, and the leaves, are palpable, but they don’t appear exactly as in nature. (For one thing, the root systems aren’t shown.) Because of the seeming absence of light, they loom as if they are imaginary. They are more like incredibly vivid memories than representations and are reminiscent of poems in their layerings of lines and in the ways they rhyme their colors. Just as it takes a magnified attention to see how an actual flower is made, it takes an Ultra Optix 2x power lens with a 5x bifocal magnifying glass to tackle the poetic complexity of these virtual flowers. After all, Mrs. Delany dissected her specimens in order to render their splendor in her cut-out likenesses.
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. In the dream-like, luminous atmosphere of memory, imagination, and mourning, the flowers have something of the feel of self-portraits as well. 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 it also states what that is like, making a threshold into another world.
When Mrs. D. picked up her scissors, grief was the chief prompt. After her beloved Dean Delany’s death in 1768, which followed the death of her sister, Anne, in 1761, she wrote that she considered each of her flower portraits to be “an employment and amusement, to supply the loss of those that had formerly been delightful to me; but had lost their power of pleasing; being depriv’d of that friend, whose partial approbation was my pride, and had stampt a value on them.”5 By “those” she meant Anne and the stopping of their lively, vital correspondence. By “friend” she meant the Dean, in the eighteenth-century sense of friendship that was familial. He was absolutely the friend that a husband can become. She was bereft of the spark of his approbation and encouragement and deprived of that sturdy sounding board that Anne had provided all their lives.
Patrick Delany had not been one of those family-assigned eighteenth-century aristocratic mat...
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