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.
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.
But it didn’t matter. Delaney was blessed with many other gifts, chief among them the art of cementing deep friendships.
She went on to create a happy series of attachments and homes for herself, finally in her mid-40s finding profound happiness through marriage to Patrick Delaney, a 59-year-old Irish cleric and “a husband of infinite merit.”
When he died, after 25 happy years of married life, she was momentarily lost. But, taken in by an aristocratic friend, she one day united her great love of botany with artistic skills learned as a girl, and began creating her “mosaicks.” These were so beloved by the king, her friend, that he eventually gave her her own cottage on the grounds of Windsor Castle, along with a stipend to support her. Delaney lived to the age of 88.
Peacock does a skillful job of blending Delaney’s life story with the basic facts of her own. She also weaves in the story of Delaney’s great-great-great-great-great-great-niece Ruth Vader, who wrote the book that helped Peacock to discover Delaney.
“The Paper Garden” is not a book to read on your Kindle. The beautiful $30 hardcover edition includes numerous examples of Delaney’s work and is well worth the extra expense. Peacock frequently reminds us that she is a poet. Her lyrical commentary on Delaney's works – which appears at the beginning of each chapter – may be a bit too much icing on the cake for readers disinclined to poetic metaphor.
But she certainly is correct in pointing out that “Each of Mrs. Delaney’s flower mosaicks is a portrait, highly individual, full of personality.” They “veer between the dignified and the sensual ... as complex as Mrs. D’s personality.”
Toward the end of her life Delaney wrote, “Happiness may seemingly retire, sometimes under the disguise of losses, trials, or worldly disappointments, which in the train of life may happen, and indeed in some degree must, but you are sure of finding her again with added luster.”
It's that luster that makes "The Paper Garden" such a pleasure.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.