“The Colorful Genesis of An Art”
A review of
The Paper Garden:
An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72
by Molly Peacock.
Review by Brittany Buczynski.
It’s not often that the genesis of a new art form can be pinpointed. Who wrote the first rhyming couplet? Who composed the first symphony? Who first strung and twisted together yarn until it became a knitted whole? Most of these initial eureka moments are lost, even though the art they birthed could survive for thousands of years.
The Paper Garden has the rare honor of tracing the history behind an original art form, the craft we now know as paper collage, and with it the patchwork life of its elderly inventor, one Mrs. Mary Granville Pendarves Delany.
As if that circuitous name doesn’t give it away, Mrs. Delany led quite an eventful life, which is explored in detail in Molly Peacock’s lovingly rendered—and beautifully illustrated—history of the artist behind the work. Here are the basics, just to give a flavor of Mary’s impressive biography and the extensive research that the author had to do in retelling her life story.
Born in May of 1700, Mary’s childhood saw her shuttled among relatives and given early training in dance, needlework, and language, all to prepare her for a career serving Queen Anne’s royal family. Those plans unraveled with George I’s ascension to the throne, which left Mary’s family out in the cold, politically speaking. At seventeen, she was unhappily married off to a well-connected and well-to-do sixty-year-old Parliament member, in an attempt to secure the family’s precarious financial and social situation. When she was widowed just six years later, Mary found herself without the inheritance she had hoped for but, perhaps more important, with far more independence than most women of her time enjoyed. She took full advantage of this freedom and spent the next two decades weaving among the upper echelons of British high society, exercising her skills in fashion design and various art projects along the way.
When she eventually remarried—this time for love—to Irish clergyman Patrick Delany, Mary gained first-hand botanical experience as she and her husband worked side-by-side in his garden, thus setting the stage for her ultimate artistic accomplishment. Widowed again at age sixty-eight, Mary eventually folded her grief into the work of cutting and pasting dramatically accurate reproductions of flowering plants, creating nearly 1,000 individual paper mosaics in what came to be known as her Flora Delanica. It wasn’t long before this collection received widespread acclaim, earning Mary devoted fans among the scientific and artistic communities of England, as well as gaining her the noteworthy friendship of King George III and Queen Charlotte, who provided Mary with a home and annual stipend during the final years of her life.
Suffice it to say that this summary only hints at the many twists and turns in Mary Delany’s life and art. But anyone could have written a page-turning biography on a woman as interesting as Mary Delany; the source material is fantastic, with literally reams of letters preserved, not to mention the original mosaics themselves, housed in the British Museum. The real triumph of The Paper Garden comes in Molly Peacock’s passion for explaining Mary as both a woman and an artist. When Molly describes Mary’s mosaics, comparing their snipped edges and painstaking colors with their creator’s own harsh life experiences, it’s obvious how much Molly adores these mesmerizing paper flowers and the elderly hands that cut them.
Each of the book’s fourteen chapters begins with a gorgeous, full-page color picture of one of Mrs. Delany’s mosaics. Close-ups are offered throughout, allowing the reader to experience a personal connection with the lifelike images and to appreciate Mrs. Delany’s extreme devotion to her craft. One can’t help but gasp at the beauty of these ancient collages. Indeed, this portfolio would be impressive for any artist, but when one recalls the book’s subtitle and the fact that all of these paper flowers were hand-cut and pasted together by a woman no less than seventy-two years old (and up until age eight-eight when she began losing her eyesight), the feat is astounding—and awe-inspiring. It certainly leaves no excuse for the average young artist struggling to produce something original and enduring.
But again, this is more than a run-of-the-mill biography, and even more than an interpretive study of two-hundred-year-old paper mosaics. Peacock acknowledges early on the affinity she feels for Mary’s situation, from her turbulent first marriage to her artistic highs and lows. The parallels between the two female artists are striking not so much in detail but in degree. The connection is personal and palpable, and it gives The Paper Garden an unexpected (but not unintended) sense of intimacy.
There’s comfort in connecting with those who have gone before us, in feeling as though we would have been great friends with these fellow artists, if only we’d lived in the same century. Perhaps it’s inevitable that every artist will find someone in the past to motivate and challenge him, someone with whom he shares an intrinsic bond and from whom he draws fire to fuel his own work. For some, it will be a mentor artist in the same field, a Dickens or Dostoyevsky to inspire a modern-day novelist, a Michelangelo or da Vinci for today’s sculptor or painter. Other times, it will be a crosspollination of sorts, a Coleridge inspiring a jazz musician, a Beethoven stirring the pen of a beat poet.
Whatever the combination, the role this artistic heritage plays cannot be minimized. And in The Paper Garden, the author’s preservation of Mrs. Delany’s legacy is as much an expression of her own gratitude as it is a testimony to the continuation of creativity throughout time.
Reading The Paper Garden, one almost gets the impression that the author has met Mrs. Delany. This book could easily be used as a case study for how to examine an artist in depth without losing oneself in the process. There’s a beautiful give-and-take between Mrs. Delany’s life as told in her letters, Molly Peacock’s meticulous interpretation of the mosaics themselves, and the present-day treasure hunt required to meld the two. The Paper Garden, in this sense, is half historical biography, half artistic analysis—and fully a labor of love.
Dissecting the mosaics with precision only a poet could muster, Molly Peacock delicately interprets each leaf and petal, bringing another layer of meaning to the already multifaceted art of Mrs. Delany’s paper garden. In Peacock’s hands, these mosaics become more than an intuitive new art form. They become a window into the life of a woman who learned to survive through her art—and whose art now survives her, quietly inspiring others to believe that perhaps it’s never too late to begin one’s life work.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com