American poet Molly Peacock has given herself the task of using her skills to describe the life and work of the 18th-century British artist Mary Delany. The Paper Garden (Spring 2011, Bloomsbury) is a beautifully produced book that chronicles Delany’s late-in-life productivity, and tells the story of how her delicate works on paper have maintained their appeal for three centuries. The book is a hybrid of biography, art history and memoir, as occasional parallels to Peacock’s own life—such as the fact that both women were happier in their second marriages—create an emotional bond between writer and subject. Some of the strongest passages in the book pull the reader toward the art, the life and the history via the overt presence of the biographer, such as when she describes her own window box flowers.
Delany’s 985 paper “mosaicks” are flowers made of countless slivers of handmade papers, pasted on black rag paper. The book contains full-color reproductions of several of them, and enlarged details to illuminate Delany’s meticulous process. Peacock chooses one flower for each chapter, each of which outlines an era of Delany’s life. Nodding Thistle, an especially complex image which Peacock describes as “a spiky purple thistle head bow[ing] above a whirlwind of prickers . . . determined spikes pok[ing] from turbulently bristling leaves,” represents Delany’s unhappy first marriage to a much older man who was too often in his cups.
Delany’s flowers have so much personality that Peacock calls them portraits, citing a passage in a letter in which Delany referred to one of them as “she.” The personification is a bold leap, but the organization of the biography is clear and engaging. Comparing Delany’s rendering of two Canada lilies growing on one stem to her close relationships with female friends, with whom she often cohabited, is a metaphor that feels true: women of the 18th century might obtain a modicum of independence by sharing financial resources and living spaces.
There are many moments in The Paper Garden when it’s clear that a poet is writing. My favorite of these is Peacock’s description of the damask rose: “Mrs. D. composed the main flower of Rosa gallica, Cluster Damask in seventy-one pieces (the number that my eye can count), each a separate single color, from tongue pink to inside-the-lower-lip pink to under-the-fingernail pink—all accented with three slivers of red.” It is not so much the rhythm or the repetition, or even the care Peacock demonstrates as she remains loyal to the metaphor, but the fierce and crucial practice of observation that bonds the crafts of poetry and visual art in this passage. Poems require original and sensory description under formal constraints, and Peacock gives us such as she writes about Delany’s friendships, her elaborate handmade gowns, the larger-scale historical events that shaped the artist’s life, and the care she lavished on the mosaicks.
Peacock emphasizes that Delany began her Flora Delanica at age 72 in the book’s subtitle, and allows Delany’s life to demonstrate her capabilities. Grief was the chief prompt for the flowers’ creation. Delany’s sister Anne died in 1761, when Mary was 61, and she suffered terribly from the loss of their vital, candid correspondence. It is the thousands of pages of letters between the sisters, and Delany’s correspondence with other family and friends, that are the most important primary source for any Delany biography. In her private letters, Mary could freely use her voice, sharing with Anne not only sisterly advice, but also her political concerns, her most private opinions, and the thrill of hearing Handel play or listening to Jonathan Swift’s conversation at a dinner party.
After the death of her beloved second husband, Dean Patrick Delany, in 1768, Mary wrote about beginning the floral images, which she considered to be “an employment and amusement to supply the loss of those that had formerly been delightful to me,” meaning her sister and her husband. Having lost her most intimate confidants, Delany conjures their personalities in the botanicals, and allows herself to outwardly communicate her grief through the vehicle of the mosaicks. It often seems she is challenging herself to express the exquisite complexities of each flower, as she met the challenges of language through the nuanced practice of her correspondence.
Romantic and political intrigues run through Delany’s life. She was born to an upper-class family, and many of her relatives served at court, but the death of Queen Anne in 1714 left her clan without royal connections. When Delany (née Granville) was a girl, her uncle practically sold her to the wealthy Alexander Pendarves, who died a few years later without bequeathing much to his wife. As a young widow, she was pursued by several appealing suitors, all of whom she refused, preferring her freedom, and found that even the meager inheritance from Mr. Pendarves afforded her a comfortable independent life.
As for political drama, her uncle Lord Landowne teamed up to attempt to overthrow the Whigs (and therefore George I), but the plot failed, and not only was her uncle imprisoned in the Tower, but soldiers also burst in upon Mary’s home and her father, too, was briefly detained. To reveal more would spoil the rollicking narrative and incredible settings, many of which have become protected historical sites or hold astonishing botanical and zoological collections, and the pleasure of taking in Delany’s acute perspective and the adventure of her vision. “Direct examination leads to indirect epiphany. You can overcome yourself,” Peacock assures us in her conclusion, and indeed there is much wonder and inspiration in Delany’s life and work.