Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700-1788) became famous for her exquisitely detailed, botanically precise flower collages set against dramatic black backgrounds. Perhaps the most astounding thing about Delany’s flowers is the fact that they are, in fact, collages and not the paintings they appear to be, even in extreme close-up.
As an artist, Delany gave new meaning to the term “late bloomer.” She began making her “paper mosaicks” at the age of 72 and, over the course of a decade, produced 985—the onset of blindness preventing her from achieving her goal of 1,000. Collectively known as the Flora Delanica, her work is now kept at the British Museum.
American-born, Toronto-based poet Molly Peacock has produced a winsomely unorthodox ode to Delany that is part biography, part miniature coffee-table book and part memoir. The first thing one notices first about The Paper Garden is its weight. Although pocketbook-sized, the book weighs about as much as a Cornish hen, its heft attributable to the fact that the entire thing—not just those pages with full-colour plates—is printed on heavy, glossy white stock. (Buyer beware: wrist guards are recommended for sustained readings.)
Mary Delany was born Mary Granville to a minor branch of an important British family. At an early age, she was sent to live with her Aunt Stanley in London in preparation for a possible future position at court. Her parents were fiercely loyal the House of Stuart, an allegiance that served them poorly when the Hapsburgs took over the throne following the death of Queen Anne. In a bid to win political points, Mary’s uncle, Lord Lansdowne, married her off at the age of 17 to the repulsive, elderly, gout-ridden Alexander Pendarves. The marriage, which was miserable and childless, lasted until Pendarves’ death six years later.
Widowhood gave Mary freedom to explore her interests, which included painting, writing and stitching as well as other crafts fashionable in her day such as decorating with shells and silhouette cutting. Her life was also intensely social, involving frequent balls, dances and dinners. Although not wealthy, Delany was well connected and consorted with many of the day’s luminaries, such as Handel, the painter William Hogarth and Jonathan Swift.
Mary had no dearth of suitors, some of whom would have substantially raised her standard of living, but she did not choose to remarry until she was 43, at which time Patrick Delany, a widowed Irish clergyman of modest means whom she had met years earlier, sought her out and proposed. The two moved to Ireland and enjoyed a happy union enriched by a mutual love of gardening and botany. It was after her second widowhood, 25 years later, that Delany embarked upon the period of intense creative production that was to be her life’s enduring legacy.
The details of Delany’s life are known mostly through the many volumes of letters she wrote and which were later collected by a descendant of her sister, Anne. Delany’s definitive biography was written in 1980 by her great-great-great-great-great-great niece, Ruth Hayden. Delany never did get her coveted position in court, but her fame eventually brought the court to her. King George and Queen Charlotte admired her work so much they provided her with a cottage at Windsor Castle where she lived until her death.
Molly Peacock first saw Delany’s flowers on display at the Morgan Library in New York in the late 80s and recalls the near shame she felt at her embrace of their “derrière-garde” craftiness (“How I wished I loved in my heart the art I could love in my mind,” she writes). Despite her blue-collar Buffalonian provenance, Peacock finds significant parallels between her life and Delany’s, the most obvious being that she too is a twice-married (the second time happily to a man she had known in her youth) artist with no children. A self-described “sensualist,” Peacock sees this tendency in Delany’s work. She describes Delany’s rendition of a Passion Flower, for example, as “so intensely pubic that it’s as if you’ve come upon an nude study.”
Over the course of her research, Peacock traveled to Ireland and England, where she met and interviewed Ruth Hayden. (Hayden’s own story and embrace of her ancestor are fascinating in and of themselves.) Peacock skillfully and tangibly evokes Delany’s era, an accomplishment marred by occasional, bizarre anachronisms—such as when she refers to Delany’s epistolary writing as a “blog” or her contention that Delany, who loved exercise, would almost certainly have had a personal trainer had she lived in our times.
The point Peacock makes most convincingly is that Delany’s rarefied oeuvre—and her late but metaphorically apt “blooming”—was the perfect, logical product of the life that preceded it. If at times the personal connections here seem stretched, the metaphors strained, Peacock’s restless questing and passionate engagement with her subject truly make up for it. It’s pointless, after all, to argue with a poet.