The Paper Garden

The Paper Garden

Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72

Book - 2010
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Mary Delany was seventy-two years old when she noticed a petal drop from a geranium. In a flash of inspiration, she picked up her scissors and cut out a paper replica of the petal, inventing the art of collage. It was the summer of 1772, in England. During the next ten years she completed nearly a thousand cut-paper botanicals (which she called mosaicks) so accurate that botanists still refer to them. Poet-biographer Molly Peacock uses close-ups of these brilliant collages in The Paper Garden to track the extraordinary life of Delany, friend of Swift, Handel, Hogarth, and even Queen Charlotte and King George III.

How did this remarkable role model for late blooming manage it? After a disastrous teenage marriage to a drunken sixty-one-year-old squire, she took control of her own life, pursuing creative projects, spurning suitors, and gaining friends. At forty-three, she married Jonathan Swift's friend Dr. Patrick Delany, and lived in Ireland in a true expression of midlife love. But after twenty-five years and a terrible lawsuit, her husband died. Sent into a netherland of mourning, Mrs. Delany was rescued by her friend, the fabulously wealthy Duchess of Portland. The Duchess introduced Delany to the botanical adventurers of the day and a bonanza of exotic plants from Captain Cook's voyage, which became the inspiration for her art.

Peacock herself first saw Mrs. Delany's work more than twenty years before she wrote The Paper Garden , but "like a book you know is too old for you," she put the thought of the old woman away. She went on to marry and cherish the happiness of her own midlife, in a parallel to Mrs. Delany, and by chance rediscovered the mosaicks decades later. This encounter confronted the poet with her own aging and gave her-and her readers-a blueprint for late-life flexibility, creativity, and change.

Publisher: Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, c2010.
ISBN: 9781608195237
Branch Call Number: 702.812092 D337p


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rsmbarlow Feb 02, 2014

An unexpectedly lovely book! Thoughtful and thoroughly researched. Reading about flowers was a perfect antidote to late January weather!

Jan 02, 2014

This book is a low-key but surprisingly fascinating read. Its window on a woman's life nearly 300 years ago details how the basic pleasures of living remain the same while the world around morphs this way and that. Added to what we learn about life on the lower rungs of the upper class in England during the 1700s is the beauty of the author's language. Her facility for metaphor and her fluid imagination as she studies Mrs. Delany's flowers bring the characters to life, whether they be paper collages or personalities from a time long gone. A beautiful book lovingly crafted, these words are well worth spending time with.

Jan 22, 2012

A very interesting read – one of a new ‘hybrid’ style which combines traditional biography with personal reflections and philosophical themes. There are so many aspects covered: the lifestyle & roles of an English gentlewoman in the 1700s, the society itself that she moved in (how the nation was so enthralled with the natural world – obsessed with both the discovery of new plants, animals, rocks & fossils and the desire to study and classify them all being just one example) and how the result of these pursuits can be seen in modern establishments and structures like the British museum and Kew Gardens.

A study of the pictures created by Mrs. Delany is intriguing in itself – how they are assembled, with such detail and skill using a newly created technique she developed from to her need to ‘do something’ /express herself when she was immobilized due to a swollen foot yet also unable to take up her previous pursuits of needlepoint and painting as her age limited her ability to use paintbrush or needle. The artistry involved in making authentic representations of these plants, the sheer volume produced and the fact they, along with so much of her correspondences, are still intact several hundred years later is extraordinary. Also, the fact she undertook such an impressive endeavor and gained such pleasure and recognition from it in her early 70’s, after experiencing many of life’s hardships, is also very inspiring.

The author chose an interesting way to organize her material – selecting one picture as a starting point to describe and reflect upon each phase in Mrs. Delany’s life, and through this, sharing connections and reflections on her own life experiences. I felt some of this commentary to be a little out of context, but overall, much food for thought. The author also effectively shows how, whilst tracking down information, and investigating new avenues of interest, one is able to connect with many different people and gain new friendships that make life more interesting and meaningful.

It is profound to consider how connections with the past can be maintained down through generations and how the life of one person can remain an influence on so many other people’s lives today. In the case of Mrs. Delany, her descendants retained her letters, made ‘pilgrimages’ to view her pictures at the Museum and found inspiration, meaning and work through editing her letters and discussing her work. Many others have also been inspired: from the individuals who continue to safeguard, maintain and show her work at the Museum, through to the author of this book and a researcher into how the paper used by Mrs. Delany was made and where it was sourced from

Sep 01, 2011

This is a lovely book - beautiful full-colour plates, sumptous paper throughout, and above all, great writing. (tight, lively, evocative.)
I would not have thought this topic could be so absorbing! I literally could not put the book down.

Dec 29, 2010

This story of a remarkable woman is very well researched & well placed in historical context. Her life work, begun at 72, seems somewhat arcane now but intriguing esp. to those of us interested in all things botanical. The author's attempt to relate her own life experience to that of her subject three centuires earlier is not always convincing. This is a 'good read' all the same.

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