A Flower Is a Flower Is a Paper Mosaic


MARY DELANY, justly credited as the inventor of what she called ``paper mosaicks'' to imitate flowers, was typically modest about her achievement. She called her art form a ``whim of my own fancy.'' Writing to her niece in 1776 (she was the same age as the century), she describes her work humorously: ``I have been at my usual presumption of copying nature: I have bungled out a horse chestnut blossom that would make a fine figure in a lady's cap.''

The 10 large volumes of her paper-mosaic pictures of flowers which she made between 1774 and 1782, comprising almost a thousand in all, are witness to this extraordinary woman's energy, ability, and eye. Her images, made directly from specimens, are rich and subtle in their color.

According to biographer Ruth Hayden in her book ``Mrs Delany: her life and her flowers,'' one of the period's great portrait painters, Sir Joshua Reynolds, praised the paper mosaics not only for the ``harmony and brilliancy of their colors'' but for ``their accuracy of shading and perspective'' and their ``delicacy of cutting.''

Botanist Sir Joseph Banks, whom Mrs. Delany knew and whose collections of plants from Captain Cook's voyage of discovery in the 1760s she had been to see, lauded these collages, as we would call them today, for their remarkable botanical faithfulness.

These intricate cut-paper depictions certainly were not ``bungled.'' They are prodigiously skillful. But they are also, in the best sense, the product of a considerable imagination.

They are ``art'' rather than ``science,'' the fruit of a lifelong love of plants and flowers that she had for years collected, treasured, and already imitated with meticulous affection and preciseness through embroidery and shellwork (decoration made with shells in imitation of carving or stucco).

If she referred to her work as ``frippery,'' as she once did, one suspects that her irony would not have been lost on her intimates: She had long inveighed against the status of women in 18th-century British society. Drawing, painting, embroidery, and the like were looked down upon as mere female occupations. In the ``idle rich'' upper class to which Mrs. Delany belonged, it was assumed that ladies had to fill their time somehow, so it might as well have been in such trivial pursuits as needlework or watercolor.

But whatever her social status, Mrs. Delany was not in the least idle. She even admitted as much to herself by observing once that ``idleness never grew in my soil'' while adding (with usual self-deprecation) ``tho' I can't boast of any very useful employments, only such as keep me from being a burthen to my friends, and banish the spleen....''

HE was married twice. First, very unfortunately, under family compulsion. Later for happiness. Her second husband, Dr. Delany, encouraged her ``hobbies,'' but seems not to have looked upon them condescendingly. After his death, a friend, the Duchess of Portland, became a crucial encourager of Mrs. Delany's inventiveness. It was at the duchess's house, Bulstrode, that the first cut-paper flower picture was made.

Mrs. Hayden's book (just republished in Britain in a revised edition and for the first time in the United States) is a stimulating study of a period.

She quotes often from Mrs. Delany's correspondence, which is lively and descriptive, if sometimes rather moralizing and strait-laced. She could be informatively gossipy now and then, too, and through the rather formal prose it isn't hard to discern a warm-hearted and also a very determined woman.

Hayden believes Mrs. Delany's own version of how her cut-paper flowers began is likely to be true. ``Many years later Mrs Delany recalled how she had begun her new recreation.

Sitting in her bedchamber at Bulstrode, she noticed the similarity of color between a geranium and a piece of red paper that was on her table. Taking her scissors, she cut out the scarlet paper and, using more colored paper for the leaves and stalk, she created a picture of a geranium. The duchess on entering the room mistook the paper petals for real ones.'' In Mrs. Delany's words, her ``new art'' received the encouragement of the duchess, and ``her approbation was such a sanction to my undertaking, as made it appear of consequence and gave me courage to go on with confidence.''

Perhaps, however, the ``new art'' soon became self-perpetuating, even an obsession.

Her project was to make what amounts to a ``herbal,'' or book illustrating and describing plants. She had frequently referred to earlier herbals - Gerard's for example - when collecting wild plants and bringing them home to identify and study, a pursuit enjoyed during her time with Dr. Delany in Ireland. At Bulstrode, where botany was taken very seriously, she had also encountered botanical illustrators of the time and can reasonably be presumed to have been inspired by them.

Her flower mosaics must have seemed to her very like dried or pressed flowers, and it was in imitation of the volumes of such specimens that her contemporaries compiled that she put together her ``Hortus Siccus.'' The difference is that the freshness of the color of her paper flowers (which sometimes, it is true, include a real leaf or some other lesser feature from the actual plant they copy) has lasted amazingly. Dried flowers often fade to mere shadows of the original.

As an embroiderer, Mrs. Delany had been notably faithful to nature in her color. It has been speculated that she may have had threads dyed specially. The same assumption has been made with regard to the papers she later used in her mosaics. She certainly accumulated a great variety of papers, many from China, others from wallpaper manufacturers ``whose colors had run,'' writes Hayden. She continues: ``Occasionally she touched up the pictures with watercolor after sticking the paper into position, but this was the exception rather than the rule.''

Hayden likes the modern word ``collage'' for Mrs. Delany's flowers. But ``mosaic'' is closer to the terminology used during the period in which she lived. Although she did not use tesserae as a mosaicist would, because cutting paper allows for all sorts of shapes down to the slightest sliver with which she could build her images, it seems possible she actually looked to mosaics for inspiration.

Italian mosaics in the later 18th century were often very fine indeed. Some were miniatures and used for such purposes as the decoration of table tops. Movable mosaics of this kind were favored as collector's pieces by the travelers of the time, the ``grand tourists,'' and examples would have found their way to the large country houses of the aristocracy that Mrs. Delany visited.

Some of these mosaics used black backgrounds. They could be remarkably realistic in their decorative depiction of leaves and flowers and birds, and the colors of these small natural items stood out against the black with particular vividness and veracity. They are the nearest thing, in effect, to Mrs. Delany's cut-paper ``mosaicks.''

THE only pity about Hayden's excellent study of Mrs. Delany's life and art is that there aren't more color reproductions of the more than 1,000 flower mosaics in her oeuvre. In this most recent edition of the book (the first was published in Britain in 1980), Hayden has appended a list of the Delany ``collages'' in the British Museum, which holds the vast majority, and a few elsewhere. Would that many more of them were reproduced in a much fatter book.

Simple incredulity is not necessarily an important factor in appreciating art, but in this case, when the aim of imitation is so uncomplicatedly paramount, the apparent reality of the flowers Mrs. Delany creates does take the breath away. On second inspection, this pleasure gives way to admiration for the craftsmanship, to the sheer virtuosity of it all.

This virtuosity seems even more astonishing when the dates she inscribed on the back of many of her mosaics indicate the speed with which she worked. In a letter written in April, 1776, she recorded having ``done'' 20 spring plants since the beginning of March. Urgency was naturally built into her art form since her subjects would have lasted only a short time.

The inscribed dates are historically interesting, also, because they indicate the year many new species were introduced to Britain, since Mrs. Delany depicted plants imported from overseas supplied by admirers with hothouse collections.

But whether she was picturing the more common native plants she loved or exotic newcomers, the same immaculate appreciation of their form and color is conveyed. Her cut paper not only proved inspired in her hands as an imitation of leaf and petal; it also was capable of describing the minutiae of plants that can often be exceedingly complex or gossamer.

Her pasted paper sometimes expresses the rotundity of buds and berries, the woodiness of a magnolia's tough branch, and the dangerous thorniness of a briar rose. She made brilliant play with translucency and shadow, folding or turning leaves and petals in or out of patches of sunlight.

If Mrs. Delany's own modesty, even today, might possibly diminish appreciation of her work, it is high time that it stopped doing so.

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