The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72
How an 18th-century dilettante became an artist late in life.
In the year 1772 Mary Delaney might well have decided that her life was at an end. In an era when even the most pampered of aristocrats often didn’t live to see the age of 60, she was 72.Skip to next paragraph
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Her beloved husband of 25 years had died. She had no children to nurture or surround her. And although she was not in want, neither was Delaney possessed of any vast fortune. She seemed fated for a quiet, not particularly productive life as a houseguest.
Instead, this remarkable woman went on to invent a new art form.
Molly Peacock’s deeply felt tribute to Delaney, The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, should be an inspiration to us all.
An American who lives and writes in Toronto, Peacock first discovered Delaney’s work – almost 1,000 gorgeous, botanically correct cut-paper flowers today housed in the British Museum – in 1986. A poet by profession, she taught herself the art of biography in order to write this book about the woman who one day simply picked up a pair of scissors and invented what we would today call the “mixed media collage.” (Delaney herself called her works “mosaicks.”)
Peacock may not be a biographer by trade but she certainly hit the jackpot when she picked Delaney as her first subject. Delaney’s life is so well-documented through her own delightful letters and other writing that she feels quite fresh and alive – almost as if she were some gracious, talented neighbor whose extraordinarily lovely back garden just happened to abut your yard.
Yet her 18th-century existence is far removed enough from ours that its details fascinate.
In a Jane Austen-esque world, Delaney danced, rode, gardened, and socialized with some of the famous names of her time. (Among her friends she counted Jonathan Swift, George Frederic Handel, William Hogarth, and King George III. Her suitors included Lord Baltimore and John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church.)
Her first marriage, however, was a disaster, Her aristocratic uncle forced her, at the age of 16, to accept the offer of a repulsive 61-year-old drunken squire saddled with a dank castle in Cornwall. Delaney would later write that when she married, “I lost all that makes life desirable.”
Her husband was a self-pitying wreck of a man who was cloyingly jealous of his young wife. His chief virtue, in the eyes of her family, was their hope that he would eventually make Delaney a widow of substance. When he died seven years later, however, he left her free and wise beyond her years but not particularly wealthy.