The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life's Work at 72
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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.
Duchess brought the Queen her tea but she insisted on carrying back her cup herself. Then His Majesty, who had retreated for relief from his public life into his family and his childhood hobby of tracking his chlorophylled subjects to the exclusion of his human ones, called for the great floral scrapbook. “The King asked me if I had added to my book of flowers, and desired he might see it. It was placed on a table before the Queen, who was attended by the Princess Royal and the rest of the
expense as could be said to be proper.13 But she was buried in a vault at St. James’s Church, where her epitaph, written by the Bishop of Worcester, appears on a wall: She was a lady of singular ingenuity and politeness, and of unaffected piety. These qualities endeared her through life to many noble and excellent persons, and made the close of it illustrious by procuring for her many signal marks of grace and favour from their Majesties. This generic epitaph does not mention the flowers, but
inside it on a plinth under a blue sky. The plant that would bear the bloom was, in fact, a strong vine wound round and round into a great mound of green. There, in the foliage, was the bud, pulsating with growth. I stood alone, having arrived on the dot: one hundred years from the last blooming. Before me the unknown flower unfolded as in time-lapse photography, revealing wavy stamens in purplish white: yes, it was the most beautiful flower of the century. Suddenly, other people were climbing up
grandiflora plays with creamy whiteness, but as soon as Mary entered Patrick’s house at Delville, she went for red. Seeing Delville again, twelve years after she’d first visited and competed with Kitty Kelly for the affections of both Jonathan Swift and Ann Donnellan, she made her claim in scarlet. Her bedchamber she “hung with crimson damask,” and she applied the same to the bed chairs and bed curtains. Then she splashed this rich ruby into the Delville drawing room, “the curtains and chairs
to avoid being sat down and given a sermon), I excused myself to walk through that allée, to see and touch some of the lime trees, not to be confused with lime fruit trees, that Mrs. Delany must have seen. Outdoors in frigid, damp late-November 2008, even a poet’s imagination had a hard time conjuring the glorious summers of the mid-1770s. No hares nibbled on the lawn. Eventually I fled to the warm taxi I had paid to wait in rescue. I wished I had a friend waiting for me. I was traveling and