Oh, the crewel world

I have just been reading a book about Mrs. Delaney, an eighteenth-century lady who, at the age of seventy-three, took to making flower pictures from coloured paper. She concocted over a thousand of these, put together, so Horace Walpole said, ''with a precision and truth unparalleled.'' Indeed the illustrations of her work show her skill with the scissors to be almost unbelievable (the casing of a pod in her Willow Leav'd Dogsbane has one hundred fourteen spines individually cut).

''Collage'' has never attracted me as an art form. I was put off quite early in my life by a picture consisting of a fur teapot and a felt cup and saucer stuck onto a tweed table: they put my teeth on edge, I thought forever. But now I cannot resist admiring Mrs. Delaney's flower pieces, and find I cannot help but envy people who are as versatile as she with their fingers.

I am particularly drawn, perhaps, to those unorthodox artists who set themselves nigh impossible tasks which, by the very strength of their zeal, are eventually crowned with success. I am thinking of those who fashion model cathedrals out of matchsticks, taking several years and heaven knows how many lucifers to complete the job. I am remembering, too, the typist who managed, by some fantastic legerdemain, to type a picture of the Mona Lisa. All the niggliness of constructing tiny sailing ships with collapsible masts and then coaxing them into bottles strikes me as being so skillful as to be almost supernatural, and I stand humbled before landscapes made from the insides of clocks, not to mention models of the Taj Mahal carved out of icing sugar.

Not all these artifacts are beautiful, like Mrs. Delaney's flowers, but the sheer ingenuity that went into their making compels admiration as well as setting up a sort of wonder as to how their originators ever thought of doing anything so daft. What is it prompts a man to say to himself, ''I am going to build a pagoda out of ping-pong balls to go at the bottom of my garden''? Or for a woman to decide there is nothing she wants to do more than to knit a picture of her grandmother in crewel wool?

When I was young there was a titled English lady who frequently sent birds' nests to the Natural History Museum, nests which she said she had found in her woods. The museum was in a constant state of perplexity, for these nests tended to be examples, perfect down to the last meticulously placed twig, of the abodes of birds not indigenous to Great Britain, such as the bobolink or the lyrebird. Time, or perhaps carelessness, eventually revealed that the lady was fashioning these nests herself, her pride in her work being measured against the museum's bafflement. Why she had chosen this form of aviculture as a hobby was never divulged, except that she did actually live inm a tree.

Whatever the cause of all the eccentricity in our midst, heaven preserve it, I say. Surely, surely the world would be a poorer place without Whistler's mother reproduced in melon seeds.

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