Late bloomer

HAIL to the happy hour! when fancy led/ My pensive mind this flowery path to tread/ And gave me emulation to presume/ With simple art, to trace fair nature's bloom.'' These lines were written by Mary Delany in the 18th century; they refer to the paper mosaics of flowers she began to make when she was 73, a work she continued for another decade. Born in 1700, she flourished in a rich and turbulent era, at once so civilized and so revolutionary; she did not leave the scene till 1788. Burke called her ``the highest bred woman in the world, and the woman of fashion of all ages.'' Greatly gifted with her pen, her needle, and with scissors, she was the friend of royalty, of the nobility, and of botanists.

She delighted in natural history, a science then little developed. As far as she could she became a remarkable botanist, being appreciative, observant, and accurate. It was this careful perception and her eye for beauty that finally enabled her to create her own particular form of art -- that of making paper mosaics of flowers. These she did so perfectly that they were everywhere admired, and many notable people left their impressions of them -- Erasmus Darwin, for instance, was most struck by their loveliness and their wonderful exactitude.

This pursuit began quite casually. A piece of vermilion paper that had been left lying on a table caught her eye, because it was of precisely the same shade as the color of a geranium near it. She picked up a pair of scissors and began, guided only by her eye, to cut out a replica of the flower, petal by petal, laying these on a dark background. While she was doing this the Duchess of Portland, a great friend, who shared her botanical passion, came in and asked, ``What are you doing with that geranium?''

Mrs. Delany had long been expert in embroidery. She was trained to select the right colors and shades. She was also familiar with the forms and shapes of many flowers. All this, of course, helped her. She used Chinese paper, which she procured from captains who were on the China run, as well as sheets she could get from the paper-stainers, who always had a great deal of oddly tinted material on hand. Most important, perhaps, was her extremely accurate, painstaking nature -- she would use over a hundred pieces of paper in depicting one part of a plant if she thought it necessary, placing these parts in a perfect arrangement. As she knew everyone in the great world of the salons, her art was at once detected, admired, and encouraged; over a thousand examples of it are to be found today in Windsor Castle and the British Museum.

We would all like to be Mary Delanys in our several ways, so that seeing a piece of scarlet paper lying on a table near a geranium -- not in itself a startling occurrence -- would launch us at once into a new and agreeable career. Not the literal semblance, but something of this ilk; and we feel that it must be at hand, though, alas, we generally contrive to miss it, or even if we hear our cue we put up some sort of resistance. Clearly the fact that she was 73 did not faze Mrs. Delany, though at that time people were apt to take their cycle of solar journeys rather more heavily than we do now.

Great musicians, great mathematicians, great chess players seem to declare their bent almost in infancy, but happily this does not hold true for most callings. We need not despair if we are not Rembrandts when we are 3. Writers often pick up their pens quite late in life, men like William de Morgan. And even Conrad started when he was around 40 -- and then to write in a language that was not his own!

Erasmus Darwin, who so greatly admired Mrs. Delany, despaired of his own son, Charles. In his opinion this youth would never amount to anything. After receiving a long series of adverse reports from the young man's tutors, the father decided that this apparently useless boy would have to go into the church as his only possible recourse.

Arthur Wellesley was thought by his family to be in the same category. Incompetent, clumsy, a gangling younger son (he had three older brothers), he was always in the shade, particularly beside the eldest, the brilliant Richard. It took many years to realize that this scion, after his amazing campaigns in India and in Spain, would shake the earth as the Duke of Wellington.

Winston Churchill was always at the bottom of his class, and his people thought him a dunce; Einstein could never do arithmetic. All this is immensely encouraging to most of us, who are likewise late starters, and who hope someday to prove that the race is not only to the swift. People have to find their niche eventually; perhaps it is not very important whether this comes early or late. We are, we hope, preparing ourselves for something, through patient or not so patient years. Anyway, years. What strange event will mold our careers is a mystery; thinking of the Mary Delanys fortifies us, as we await this moment of wild surmise with what endurance we can summon to our aid.

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