Mary Delany (1700-1788)

Picasso and Braque were not the first artists to invent collage. Mary Delany (1700-1788) created a flower collage in 1772 with painted papers pasted on a black painted paper substrate background – one hundred and forty years before Picasso is credited with the invention of collage in 1912. She was 72 when she created her first collage, and created 985 botanically accurate, life-size flower collages from 1772 to 1782 (sometimes 4 a week).

Mary Delany Passifloria laurifolia

Mary Delany called her flowers paper mosaicks. As she worked, she looked at living specimens. Sometimes she dissected the flowers to understand their anatomy. She only stopped working when her eyesight began to fail. Her paper mosaicks are now at the British Museum (London, UK) in the Department of Prints and Drawings. Delany’s works can also be seen in the Royal Collection, the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, and the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, USA.

The image above is titled Passaflora Laurifolia (Gynandria Pentandria) Bay Leaved, dated 1777, collage of colored papers with bodycolor and watercolor on black ink background.

Mary Delany, Hexandria monogyny

Mary Delany pasted her papers “collage-fashion” directly onto her black painted paper substrate. She did not draw the flower in advance. She created a perfect reproduction of a living plant with cut papers pasted piece by piece. The British Museum says Delany’s works are both exquisite, and also valuable for their scientific accuracy.

The image above is titled Pancratium martitimum (Hexandria monogynia), Sea daffodil. Mary Delany created this work in 1778. The sea daffodil grows on beaches along the Mediterranean.

Mary Delany, Cynoglossum omphalodes

The image above is titled Cynoglossum omphalodes, Hounds Tongue. It was not considered a particularly exotic plant. Mary Delany created this work in 1776.  The 1700s was a time of global exploration and a great interest in botany. Mary Delany’s gift was her ability to create a botanically accurate image with painted papers. Her black backgrounds were unique at the time because all botanic images were typically on white backgrounds.

Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden

I read two books to learn about her life and the times she lived – the first is titled The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, by Molly Peacock (New York, Bloomsbury, 2011). I loved reading Molly Peacock’s book because every chapter opens with a flower image that she connects to the people, historic and personal events in Mary Delany’s life.

Chapter 2 in the Paper Garden is titled Seedling and tells us how Mary was sent to live with her Aunt Stanley from age 8 to 14, because her family thought she might one day become a Lady in Waiting at Court and Aunt Stanley would make sure she would learn French, master piano, needlework, painting, stand with perfect posture, control her independent nature, as well as understand the rules that led to success for a woman in her class. Chapter 2 opens with an image of a silhouette and tells us Mary Delany mastered cutting paper with scissors while attending Mademoiselle Puelle’s school with other proper aristocratic girls. Her classmates coveted her cut paper birds and flowers. As an adult, she often entertained her friends by cutting silhouettes.

Molly Peacock first saw Mary Delany’s flower mosaics in 1986 at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, and says she was smitten. The exhibition included 110 flowers. The image above is the book cover for The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, by Molly Peacock.

Ruth Hayden curated the Morgan Museum exhibition and wrote the exhibition catalog. Her book is titled Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers (London, British Museum Pubs. Ltd., 1980). Ruth’s father took her to see Mary Delany’s flower mosaics at the British Museum when she was 8 years old, because she was a direct descendent – and it was her life-long dream to write a book about the flowers and the life of her great great great great great … aunt. 

In Ruth Hayden’s book, we learn Mary Delany had already made a name for herself with her exquisite works of embroidery, decorative shellwork and landscape sketches before embarking on the paper mosaicks at age 72. Ruth Hayden’s book recaptures the atmosphere of privileged society in 18th-century England, including Mary Delany’s perspective on life, her strong views on the events of the period and on the social life of her circle. She was a friend of Handel and the correspondent of Jonathan Swift.

Mary Delany, Papaver somniferum

The image above is titled Opium Poppy – Papaver somniferum (created at Bulstrode, October 18, 1776). Molly Peacock writes: “Mrs. Delany’s Opium Poppy steps from the dark like a hennaed diva dressed in a ruby gown, wrapped in the emerald cloak of a leaf.” Mary Delany loved to attend the opera.

The image above is a detail of a needlework petticoat panel Mary Delany designed, embroidered and wore in 1739.

Mary Delany – Her Life and Times

Mary Delany was born Mary Granville in Coulston, Wiltshire, in the Southwest of England. Her family were aristocratic, but not rich.  We know about her life because she wrote thousands of pages of letters to relatives and friends, including vivid descriptions of the people she knew and the places she visited (all recounted in The Paper Garden). The young Mary Granville was brought up for a life a court. She was well educated and spoke several languages. She was a skilled artist, musician and embroiderer. At the British Museum site, I read: A change in the Granville family’s circumstances led to an arranged marriage with the MP Alexander Pendarves who was 45 years older than Mary who was 17.

Mary Delany Carduus mutans

Chapter 5 in the Paper Garden opens with the image above, titled Carduus mutans, Musk or Nodding Thistle. Molly Peacock describes the thistle as prickly and says it is never gathered for a marriage bouquet. The flower in this chapter represents the horror Mary Delany endured when her family forced her into a marriage at age 17. Mary never rebelled against her family’s decision to marry her off for political (and possible economic) gain, and abided a marriage with a sick, cranky man. There were no children. She was widowed at age 23.

At Wikipedia, I read a quote by Mary Delany that summed up her opinion of marriage: “Why must women be driven to the necessity of marrying? A state that should always be a matter of choice! And, if a young women has not fortune sufficient to maintain her in the situation she has been bred to, what can she do, but marry? 

Widowhood was a relief for Mary Delany, because in the 1700s, widows, unlike unmarried women, were able to move more freely in society.  She moved to London and often stayed with relatives and wealthy friends. She was able to live the life she chose (even if on a restricted widow’s pension). She kept her independent, single status for 20 years. When she was 32, she met Patrick Delany, an Irish cleric, and they married 11 years later, moving to Dublin where he became Dean of Down. They both shared a love of gardening. When he died 25 years later, she returned to England and became a companion to her long-time friend the Duchess of Portland, spending summers at the Duchess’ home of Bulstrode, Buckinghamshire. Her deep friendship with the Duchess brought her into contact with some of the greatest botanical artists and botanists of the time, including Sir Joseph Banks, who collected species from around the world. Botanists from all over Europe would send her specimens. King George the Third and Queen Charlotte were her patrons. They ordered any curious or beautiful plant to be sent to Delany when in blossom so she could use them to create her art. When the Duchess of Portland died in 1785, King George III granted Mary Delany a pension and a house at Windsor, where she lived until her death in 1788. She is buried at St.James’ Piccadilly.

Her younger sister Anne Dewes saved many of Mary’s letters, in spite of Mary telling her to burn them (because many letters contained juicy gossip tidbits about important people). The letters Anne saved were passed down to her daughter Mary Port and then to Mary Port’s daughter Augusta Waddington Hall, Lady Llanover (1802-96), who transcribed and edited the letters and published them in 6 volumes that became the resource for much of the information now. 

Her Collage Technique 

Mary Delany painted papers to represent the colors of the petals, stamens, calyx, leaves, veins, stalk and other parts of the plant. Sometimes she included tiny pieces of the actual flower in her collage. She worked with imported hand-made papers and with flour glue. Molly Peacock says there are some examples where one flower alone contains over 200 paper petals (she counted them). Every paper mosaicks include a label on the front with the plant’s Linnaean and common names, the monogram ‘MD’ in a corner, and, on the back of the work, the date and place she executed her collage, the name of the specimen’s donor and its collection number. 

People who wrote about Mary Delany’s technique said she used tweezers, a bodkin (an embroidery tool for poking holes), and a flat bone folder (shaped like a tongue depressor made for creasing paper). She worked with brushes of various kinds, a mortar and pestle for grinding pigment, ox gall (the bile of cows which when mixed with paint made it flow more smoothly), and honey that would plasticize the pigment for her inky background. She had pieces of glass or board to fix her papers, and pins to hang her papers to dry. 

Mary Delany, Magnolia grandiflora

The 9th chapter in The Paper Garden is titled Magnolia and shows Mary Delany’s collage (above) titled Magnolia grandiflora, the Grand Magnolia, created at Bill Hill, August, 1776. The chapter chronicles the marriage of Patrick and Mary Delany in 1743. They created gardens together at their estate in Belville in Ireland where Patrick was a cleric. He championed Mary’s talents and even commissioned her to paint the walls in the chapel on the grounds, and, in the process, she gained mastery for mixing paints, which helped years later when she painted papers for the flowers mosaicks.  

When I read the Paper Garden the 1st time, I was put off by how Molly Peacock juxtaposed  details of Mary Delany’s life with autobiographical details of her own life (usually at the end of every chapter, especially at the end of the 9th chapter). I questioned how the author, a modern woman, could compare her life to a woman who lived in England in the1700s. I read the Paper Garden a 2nd time and changed my opinion, thinking – how clever and talented Molly Peacock is in the way she organized the book, selecting each flower and connecting the story of each flower with the story of Mary Delany’s life (viewed in a modern context). The chapters chronicle Mary Delany’s family background, childhood, a disastrous family-arranged marriage when she was 17, widowhood at age 23, her life and the important people she knew as a young widow, a 2nd marriage, a 2ndwidowhood, and the support she received from friends that led to her late career creating fabulous paper mosaics. Molly Peacock gives us a remarkable portrait of a remarkable women – someone she admired, a unique woman we can admire for her talent, life-long creativity, courage, resilience, determination, and fortitude.

Google the name Mary Delany. There is so much current interest in Mary Delany’s flowers, it’s even called DELANYMANIA.

Please check out another blog titled Later Bloomers. It includes a video with her flower images, and juicy tidbits about Mary Delany’s life and times. 

Here is a link to an excerpt from the 1st chapter, reproduced in The New York Times. Molly Peacock wrote: “I felt nearly ashamed about how deeply I swooned over her work (seen in 1986 at the Morgan Library and Museum), because the botanicals seemed almost fuddyduddy. Somebody like Georges Braque or Pablo Picasso probably would have hated them. They were not shiny, abstract, or hanging in the Museum of Modern Art. They were not avant-garde, even in their own day. They were derrière-garde, and not even technically collages. Collage, I’d been taught, was a twentieth-century invention, supposedly a lot more involved than Mrs. D.’s pasting of paper on paper. Now one might even view Mrs. Delany as a mixed media artist, since she painted on the papers and occasionally added dried leaves as well. How I wished I loved in my heart the art I could love in my mind. Big, bold, epic, symphonic. But I love the small, the miniature, the detailed, the complex.”

She adds: “But don’t confuse her with the prissy ladies in nineteenth-century novels. Mary Delany 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.”

Thank you for reading. Please tell me if you knew about Mary Delany’s flower mosaicks, and how you learned about her.

9 thoughts on “Mary Delany (1700-1788)

  1. Nikkal,

    Great writing about Mary Delany! Delany’s flowers are exquisite!!

    I invite you to visit my website blog and consider collaborating with me for a June virtual exhibition similar to your USPS collaboration. Have a look especially at the Stickers exhibition, and the Taipei Art Fair-TN on May 9.

    The June 14 theme for the Design Miami Basel Art Fair and my blog exhibition is:

    The Golden Age: Rooted in the Past, celebrating the flexibility, resilience and adaptability of humanity.

    I created a digital collage about film; the music has a Chaplin/silent movie vibe. Feel free to ask me questions. I’d be thrilled to work with you on this exhibition. https://marylaforge.net/collage-this-blog/

    Regards, Alice

    AS/ML Alice Shapiro @ Mary LaForge 🄲🄾🄻🄻🄰🄶🄴 🄶🄰🄻🄻🄴🅁🅈​ Web [https://marylaforge.net](https://marylaforge.net/)

    Email marylaforge@protonmail.com

    Sent with [ProtonMail](https://protonmail.com/) secure email.

    1. I visited your blog and read about the stickers exhibition. You include so much information. How do people participate?

      1. Thanks for visiting, Nikkal. Stickers was the first experiment, and much content was offered. Future exhibitions feature one artist in addition to my digital collage with a format that includes music, art vendor opportunities, and focused content. The opening day of exhibitions encourages engagement in two ways: 1. Questions and comments about the art and art collecting for newbies, on the blog 2. Have an “art opening experience” in your own space by inviting friends to join you. We recommend wine and snacks to match the show’s theme. Attend an opening and make suggestions about what you’d like us to present. marylaforge.net/collage-this-blog/ I’ll be online from 9am to 6pm Central Time on May 9 to respond to questions. Questions are welcome any time. Alice

    1. I wish I had seen the flowers in person at the Morgan Museum, and was fascinated by all the detail in Molly Peacock’s book.

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