The Paper Garden
Molly Peacock, Scribe
Mary Granville Pendarves Delaney (1700-1788) was a late bloomer. Her second husband Patrick, a church of Ireland cleric, died when she was 68. And although Mrs Delaney — or Mrs D as she was affectionately called — knew, as a “stout” Christian, that she would meet Patrick in the next world, she was a wreck in her first years of widowhood.
At age 72, however, a remarkable, creative urge took root.
It was this late-blossoming — and its exquisite creative output — that most fascinated the author and poet Molly Peacock. From her fascination grew this beautiful book, The Paper Garden — a visible and reverential fruit.
Peacock first saw Mrs D’s “paper garden” in 1986 at New York’s Morgan Library, where 110 of Mrs D’s 985 botanical “mosaicks” were shown in all their magnificent, cut-paper glory.
The full set is now housed in the British Museum and referred to as the Flora Delanica — a tremendous archive on which botanists and artists can both draw.
Each mixed media collage bears a striking floral image looming from a black background. Reproductions of a number of these delightful images flank chapters of The Paper Garden and are used to illuminate Mrs D’s life story, which Peacock intertwines with snippets from her own life journey and with recollections of her research for the book.
Peacock reveals how the young Mary was married off by her uncle at age 17 to the drunken “slobbering rich old man” Alexander Pendarves. Widowed at 25, Mary lived on a small annual income but got on with building her well-connected and independent life.
She was 43 before she married Patrick Delaney but in the interim she wrote scores of pithy letters to her sister Ann, befriended luminaries like Jonathon Swift and George Frideric Handel, stayed as a guest in great country houses, buzzed about the fringes of the Georgian court, stitched and played music and lived a life befitting an English woman of her time and class.
Peacock brushes on Mrs D’s religious commitment and writes about how Mrs D’s painting process (she made copies of religious paintings) was devotional. On Ash Wednesday in 1753, for example, she planned to fast, to pray and to paint.
Peacock also makes the observation that the Passion Flower is the flower of possibilities. “To this day it has Christian overtones assigned to it by its first discoverers, Spanish Jesuit priests in South America.”
She writes beautifully about Mrs D’s trajectory to artistic brilliance: “Some of us flash into floral peak like prom queens, but others of us have to dry like the Winter Cherry in order to unfold into productivity.”
And meaningfully of her own evolution; a transformation she said that happened without fanfare while concentrating on Mrs D’s life and art.
“Somewhere in the world around me, which included the life of a woman who woke to the smell of woodsmoke, who opened her door to a whiff of horse manure, and whose tea never came from a little bag you dipped into water boiled in a kettle with an electric cord, I had misplaced my fear: Where did it go, the underleaf of panic that my husband would die and that his death would eject me into a grief-chasm? It hadn’t vanished in an obvious epiphany. It seemed a gradual thing, like one of Mrs Delany’s colours merging into the next. No, it is one paper pieced next to another; if you really look there is a line … A line was slipped past rather than boldly crossed, but I felt the difference the way a room feels different after the cat has slipped out.”
The Paper Garden would make a wonderful gift for a gardener, an artist or anyone interested in how the inspiration of a woman from centuries past can take root, like a seed, and blossom — flowering in the heart of a genuinely creative woman of our own times.