Renowned poet Molly Peacock turns biographer to bring us the riveting history of Mary Delany (1700-1788), a remarkable artist whose work now resides in the British Museum. Perhaps the most unique thing about English-born Mrs. Delany, as Peacock calls her, is that she began her famous body of work at age 72.
See also: Excerpt from The Paper Garden.
Courtesy Bloomsburry USA
An aristocrat who survived personal trials including a teenage marriage to a man her grandfather's age, disappointed hopes at court, and the loss of a beloved second husband, Delany's story is one of survival through the arts of busy-ness: music, embroidery, sketching, silhouettes, and all of the pastimes that women were able to pursue in her day.
She was also an avid botanist who corresponded with some of the great minds of her age. By the time of her eighth decade, Delany rolled all of this energy into the creation of a vast collection of floral collages, a brand-new art entirely the result of her skills and experiences
Molly Peacock, 64, talked to the AARP Bulletin about The Paper Garden and the uncanny parallels that her life shares with Delany's. Both women serve as an inspiration for anyone tempted to lay down their hobbies and stop creating — and both are examples that our experienced years can also be our most fruitful.
A. This is a book about maintaining your creativity and curiosity through your entire life. Mary Delany's story is one of a woman who overcame the many obstacles thrown in her path. There was never a time when she perceived her life as going in a straight line toward something. Her story can teach us to cherish our own abilities for adaptation and rebalancing.
Q. How did Mrs. Delany create a brand-new art form at such an advanced age?
A. People say to me, "Oh, if young Mary hadn't been married to that old coot, she would have done this art earlier." But I actually don't think so. Some things in life take living long enough to create.
Q. What experiences led her to collage?
A. First she had to have had all of her years of childhood romances, first-marriage hardship, independence and finally a sustaining midlife love with her second marriage. Then there were her apprenticeships in various crafts such as cutting silhouettes and painting. Then she was hit as we are all hit in our age by a period of mourning. Everyone, the most fortunate among us, begin to lose people in our age. And it is that loss and all of her practice in her crafts that allowed her to step forward in this art.
Q. Her early life experiences were certainly tragic.
A. Mary Delany was born a minor aristocrat who had some position in life, but not a fortune. As a little girl she is trained to be a maid-in-waiting to a queen, but by the time she's 17, her father has fallen out of political favor. And she's got an evil uncle. And the evil uncle comes in to the scene and marries her off to a fat, gouty, drunken old man her grandfather's age. She is literally dragged off to his dank, horrible castle. In her letters she calls her husband "my jailor" — this isn't a novel, this really happened!
Q. How long did this marriage last?
A. When Mary is in her mid-20s the old coot dies and she bursts out into society. She lives in London and becomes friends with some of the most famous artists of the age, such as George Frideric Handel and Jonathan Swift. She starts designing her own court dresses, she paints, she embroiders, and she develops this wonderful, fully engaged life with many friends.
Q. Was this creativity typical or expected of women of her class?
A. Most gentlewomen would draw, embroider, dance and play the spinet. Those were a lady's arts. But immediately from Mary's childhood on, it was recognized by everyone around her that she was practicing these arts to quite an extraordinary level.
Q. Did she consider herself an artist?
A. No, never. She was an amateur in a time when it wasn't a put-down to be called an amateur. And she was also an amateur botanist, collecting and identifying plants. That gave her the intimate knowledge of flowers that she would later use in her collages.
Q. When did she marry again?
A. She turns well-to-do men away for two decades after her first husband dies. But then she gets this proposal from a recently widowed pastor, Patrick Delany, and there is a whole softening. She says yes.
Q. And what was this marriage like?
A. Patrick Delany has lands with gardens and suddenly living flowers are present in her life. He admires everything about her — her dancing, the way she plays the spinet — and with this approbation she comes into a midlife flowering. She keeps enlarging her artistic passions. And I have to say even though I first saw her work in 1986, I did not truly connect with her work until 2003 when I also was in a midlife marriage that had an artistic flowering.
Q. That connection was powerful for you.
A. I got married again at 45, she got married again at 43. At the same age as Mary, I found this mature companionship that gave me a solitude for creativity in the context and embrace of my relationship.
Q. Her marriage then lasted a happy few decades?
A. Yes, they are married for 25 years — a wonderful, fruitful phase of her life. When he dies, she sinks into a four-year period of deep mourning. Her dear friend, the Duchess of Portland, really saves her, providing companionship and comfort in these years. It is at the duchess' estate, where Mary is laid up with a swollen foot, that a crucial moment of stillness hits her at age 72.
Q. Tell us about that.
A. Mrs. Delany cannot walk while her foot heals, so they set up a table for her with all of her entertainments — her embroidery, her watercolors, her paper, her scissors — and they put a geranium on the table. She sits there and watches a scarlet petal drop from the geranium onto the dark surface of the table below. Inspired, she picks up her scissors and a similarly colored piece of paper, and begins cutting out petals and assembling them on a black background.
Q. And no one had done this before.
A. No. Of course people had cut out silhouettes, and done botanical drawings, but her work was made out of hundreds and hundreds of brightly colored bits of paper. Dots and slivers and moons and squiggles of paper on dramatic black backgrounds.
Q. And this became a calling for her?
A. She had a goal — she decided to do 1,000! Well she got to 985 but by the age of 82, her eyesight simply was not good enough to complete the last 15. So she stopped when the work was still at a level that she considered satisfactory.
Q. When you saw her collages up close in the British Museum, what surprised you about them?
A. When I started examining them with a powerful magnifying glass, I was astounded how layered they were. She built up layers upon layers of paper in various colors. She was a woman who did not believe you could boil life down to simplicity. She reveled in life in all of its complexity.
Q. You're familiar with life's complexities yourself, aren't you?
A. My husband has lived with stage IV melanoma for the last 33 years. It's something that he copes with almost as a chronic disease. I went into this midlife marriage feeling that I could lose my husband at any minute, which gave me constant low-grade anxiety. I lived with this terror: What will happen to me as an artist, as a person, after I've given everything to this love? What if it vanishes?
Q. You write that studying Mrs. Delany helped you through this fear.
A. When I began reading about the life of this woman who began this amazing process in her widowhood, I thought, "Oh, here's a role model for me, here's someone who did something miraculous that grew out of that state of mourning." The fascinating thing to me is that as I wrote this book my panic left me.
Q. What new arts have you begun since writing about Mrs. Delany?
A. Well I am planning to do a three-year course of study to become a member of the Toronto garden club. I had to sketch the flowers when writing this book in order to remember them, and am finding that I love sketching. So all kind of other skills entered my life and I'm so grateful to Mrs. Delany for planting the seeds of them for me.
Betsy Towner lives in California.