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Excerpt From 'The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life's Work at 72'

Mary Delany's paper artwork looks like it's painted

As they veer between the dignified and the sensual, the flower mosaicks seem to be as complex as Mrs. D.'s personality. They hold the opposites of intrepidity and shyness, inspired daring and the deliberate anonymity that frustrated her beloved husband Patrick Delany yet endeared her to him. (He wanted her to show off, to play the harpsichord or dance in company, and though she was reputed to be a stunning musician and a delightful dancer, she would adamantly refuse.) But don't confuse her with the prissy ladies in nineteenth-century novels. She lived a century before, when politeness did not mean squeamishness, when elaborate manners existed side by side with blood and bile. Mary Granville, then Pendarves, then Delany was a complicated character in a multi-leveled, socially ornate world. But if a role model in her seventies isn't layered with contradictions – as we all come to be – then what good is she? Why bother to cut the silhouette of another's existence and place it against our own if it isn't as incongruous, ambiguous, inconsistent, and paradoxical as our own lives are?

See also: Interview with Molly  Peacock.

A few of the papers she used — all of the papers in the eighteenth century were handmade — in fact were wallpapers, but mostly she painted large sheets of rag paper with watercolor, let them dry, then cut from them the hundreds of pieces she needed to reproduce — well, to re-evoke might be a better word — the flower she was portraying. There is no reproduced hue that matches the thrill of color in nature, yet Mrs. D. went after the original kick of natural color, and she did it like a painter. If you look at photographic reproductions of her work in a book like this, you may swear to yourself that her flowers are painted. But if you go to the British Museum Web site, zoom in on the image, then zoom in again and again, at last you will see the complicated overlapping layers of cut paper that this book shows in enlargements of details.

You may also like: What is expressive drawing? >>

Excerpted from The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock. Copyright © 2010 by Molly Peacock. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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