No it’s not a watercolor. It’s a paper collage (“mosaicks”) created by Mary Granville Delany (1700 – 1788) at the age of 72. Molly Peacock’s book, Paper Flowers is a memoir, a biography, an epic poem or a combination of all three, for which there is no standard literary genre. For example, “like day-dreams. 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.” These are sentences written by Mary Peacock to describe Mrs Delany’s flower collages.
Mary Granville Delany was connected, but never achieved a court appointment. She was married twice: the first time she was forced to honor her family’s desires and the second time for love. Unlike many of her friends, she was not rich, in fact she was just able to get by on the stipend left by two husbands. She had no children. She counted Jonathan Swift and Frederic Handel as her friends. She spent her life making things. “She belonged to the world of limners. She had a botanist’s bent, but no one would have called her a crack botanist. She had a painter’s bent, but no would have called her a first-class painter. She had a remarkable fashion design sense and knew how to embroider like a spider, but no one would have called her a couturier. She up and wrote a roman a clef called Marianna at the age of fifty-nine, but no would have called her a novelist. She wasn’t an expert in anything, except observing. And she did something no one had every done before.” – Paper Flowers
And that “something” she completed in her seventies and eighties. These were the flower “mosaicks” (Mary’s name) for the collages she made from slivers of paper, sometimes she added watercolor to create shadows and sometimes she pasted real leaves onto the paper ones. but all the flower collages were created on black backgrounds. She completed 985 collages before her eyes finally gave out.
Paper Flowers is a scholarly biography, but it also a very personal interpretation by Peacock of the flower collages made by Mary Delany.
Molly Peacock describes the circumstances, the place, the technique Mary used to create the flower collages. In addition, Peacock often compares the characteristics of the flowers themselves to Mary’s state of mind. “…the spiky purple thistle head bows compliantly above a whirlwind of prickers. Although the head nods in shy assent, its determined spikes pokes from turbulently bristling leaves that a wise person would never handle without gloves. Alexander Pendarves (Mary’s first husband), like a burr, always irritated his young wife – she, the thorny object of his love.” Paper Flowers
The third and most unusual aspect of this book, is the interweaving of Mary Peacock’s personal life with that of the life of Mary Delany. At first I found it unnerving, interrupting the story in this way. Describing a very difficult period in Mary’s life, Peacock makes the transition like this: “At Buckland, when Mary looked at her mother, she saw a woman victimized by her own disappointments and hysteria, yet when she looked at her father, she saw a man ordering his diminished existence. For me, it was the opposite. When I looked at my father, who was an alcoholic, I saw a man victimized by his own disappointments and hysteria, yet when I looked at my mother, I saw a woman ordering her diminished existence. ” This short excerpt is one of many paragraphs that go on for pages about Mary Peacock’s parallel life.
An Artist Begins Her Life at 72 is the subtitle of this book. I am grateful to the friend, who gave Paper Flowers to me as a gift. The flower collage on the cover is Rosa gallica, Cluster Damask; it is made up of 71 separate pieces of paper, each a separate color. The Morgan Library has some of the Delany flower “mosaiks” in its collection. Seeing the flower mosaiks in person is my next journey.