Crafters in History: Mary Delany

If you think you have yet to hit your crafting stride, just give it some time. And take heart in the knowledge that Mary Delany, who is now famous for her flower collages (the majority of which are in the collection at the British Museum), did not start making them until she was 73.

In 1717, when she was only 17, Mary Granville was married to Alexander Pendarves. He was 60. Let’s just say, it was not a love match. Mary’s parents had found themselves in a bit of a financial pickle, and they hoped that by marrying their young daughter to a member of Parliament, they might gain a bit political favor. Poor Mary spent much of her time nursing her husband, who suffered from gout and who dealt with his pain by maintaining a constant state of inebriation. His perpetual drunken state meant Alexander didn’t have the mental capacity for anything business related. So when he died in 1724, after seven years of marriage, Mary learned that he had neglected to change his will to include her.

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She might have lost out on a fortune, but being a widow was the best position in which a Victorian woman could find herself. As a widow, she was free to move through society in the way that neither a single nor married woman could. Without a home of her own, she spent time staying with various friends and relatives. She had dealt with the difficulties of her marriage by doing embroidery at her husband’s bedside and now that she had more time to herself, she was always making something — a small cape made entirely of macaw and canary feathers, embroidered chair cushions and paintings.

Image above: Detail from the hem of the petticoat of Mrs. Delany’s court dress, University of Texas

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Then when she was 44, and on a visit to Ireland, she found love in the form of an Irish clergyman — Dr Patrick Delany. After a bit of resistance from Mary’s family, who felt that Dr. Delany wasn’t at her social level, the pair married. And it was an extremely happy union.  Mr. Delany encouraged Mary in her artistic pursuits and she sewed, made paper cut outs and shell art. Her marital happiness lasted for 25 years, until Dr. Delany died.

Image above: Rosa Gallica from the collection at The British Museum

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Mary moved back to England to live with her friend, Margaret Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland (who also happened to be the wealthiest woman in England). Always industrious, Mary dealt with her grief by diving into her passion of paper cutting. She and Dr. Delany had a shared passion for botany, and now living with the Duchess of Portland, who was one of the greatest botany collectors, enabled Mary to truly study her specimens. She would dissect them and then create detailed paper reproductions using tissue paper.

Image above: Cynoglossum Omphalodes from the collection at The British Museum

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A true product of the Enlightenment, Mary wasn’t trying to create an artistic interpretation of the flowers. She was utterly exacting in her reproductions and would work with the specimen before her. Then she cut tiny pieces of paper to represent the various parts of the flower using lighter and darker papers to create the effect of shading. She glued her papers on a black background would layer the papers on top of one another. The plants were always represented at life size and a single image might contain hundreds of pieces. For Passiflora laurifolia (image above), there are more than 230 paper petals that make up the bloom. She was a quick worker and created one thousand of these collages in the last decade of her life. She only stopped cutting paper when her eyesight began to fail at age 88.

Image above: Passiflora laurifolia from the collection at The British Museum

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Mary also outlived the Duchess of Portland. When she died, Mary was invited to move into a small house at Windsor owned by the King George III and Queen Charlotte. (The King and Queen were so concerned for her that they granted her a small annuity, in addition to the house) Today, her flowers are in the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery, testament to her creative skill and industriousness.

Image above: A tool kit given to Mrs. Delany by Queen Charlotte from the collection of the Royal Collection Trust

 

What to Read: Mary Delany

Mrs. Delany: her life and her flowers by Ruth Hayden – Written by a descendent of Mary Delany, this book uses tells the story of Mary Delany’s life and art.

Mrs. Delany and her Circle – This book was published in conjunction with the 2009 exhibition of Mary Delany’s work at Yale. the companion book to the Yale exhibition. It includes a step-by-step explanation of Mary’s technique.

The Mary Delany Collection at the British Museum – definitely worth looking through her amazing collection

5 Comments

  1. In addition to the resources listed at the end of the article, there’s also the book written by the poet Molly Peacock that was published in 2012: The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72. Well worth a look!

  2. Very interesting little history. However, and I’m very sorry to be so particular, but things like this do actually matter: if this person lived during the 1700s and early 1800s, she did not live during the Victorian period. She lived during the Georgian period (the last 2 King Georges). Victoria didn’t become Queen of England until 1837.

  3. I love the tale of a person achieving so much later in life – a reminder that it is never too late. Her work was so delicate, I am surprised her eyes were good enough even at 73, impressive!

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