I was just poking about in the art section and was excited to find a copy of one of my favourite books ever: The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 by the poet Molly Peacock (Scribe Publications). It has the most luscious cover which is what enticed me to start with, and then I read the blurb, which I will reproduce here because it explains this clever, delicate and fascinating book so well:
“At once a biography of an extraordinary 18th-century gentlewoman and a meditation on late-life creativity, this is a beautifully written tour de force from an acclaimed poet. Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700-1788) was the witty, beautiful and talented daughter of a minor branch of a powerful family. Married off at 16 to a 61-year-old drunken squire to improve the family fortunes, she was widowed by 25, and henceforth had a small stipend and a horror of marriage. She spurned many suitors over the next 20 years, including the powerful Lord Baltimore and the charismatic radical John Wesley.
She cultivated a wide circle of friends, including Handel and Jonathan Swift. And she painted, stitched, observed, as she swirled in the outskirts of the
Georgian court. In mid-life she found love, and married. Upon her husband’s death 23 years later, she arose from her grief, picked up a pair of scissors and, at the age of 72, created a new art form, mixed-media collage. Over the next decade, Mrs Delany created an astonishing 985 botanically correct, breathtaking cut-paper flowers, now housed in the British Museum and referred to as the Botanica Delanica. Delicately, Peacock has woven parallels in her own life around the story of Mrs Delany’s and, in doing so, has made this biography into a profound and beautiful examination of the nature of creativity and art.”
After reading this, I just had to read the book, and since I have made a present of it to several people. It is hard to explain how lovely the work that Mrs Delaney created is, how it just glows. She painted pieces of paper and then cut out the petals, leaves, stems, tendrils to make these stunning images that float somewhere between botanical science and art. There are many photos in the book and I got out a magnifying glass to peer at them, to try to see their collagey, layered nature. One of the most famous pieces is the passion-flower:
One of the things I really liked about the book was the feeling that you got to know Mrs Delany, and in the end, I wished I could have met her – she was, is, just amazing. One of the charms of the book is how Molly Peacock writes about her own creative process, and how she thinks about and discovers more about Mrs Delany. This could have been intrusive but it is done so well, it is as though the two women are dancing through each other’s lives.
Mrs Delany lived for an incredible span of years at a time when most people didn’t, and she was well-enough off to have the leisure to be able to observe and acutely record the people and happenings around her. She ran a sort of Georgian literary and intellectual salon, and was admired for her cleverness, wit and charm and then, invented a new art form that enchanted viewers from the beginning – I think she’d have really liked this book.