Thursday, September 04, 2008

Mary Delany and her Paper Mosaicks




I've been doing a bit of research on Mary Delany, the artist whose floral collages so inspired Sybil Connolly. It appears that Delany too was a fascinating and creative woman.

Born in England in 1700, Mary Granville Pendarves Delany was known for her wit, her charm, and her intellect. Like many well-bred ladies of the day, Delany became skilled in both needlework and shellwork, the latter becoming extremely popular in the 18th c. This detail-oriented type work, coupled with her knowledge of Botany, would hold Delany in good stead as she began creating her floral paper collages in the 1770s. As the story goes, one day Delany noticed the similarity between the color of a vibrant geranium and that of a red piece of paper. Delany began to cut the paper into petals and thus created her first "paper mosaick" (her term for her collage work). Until her eyesight failed her in 1782, Delany was prolific with her paper work. Her collection of work, which she called her "Herbal" or Hortus Siccus, was inspired by the numerous plants and flowers that her friends gave her. Or perhaps I should say that her friends were inspired by her work- King George III and Queen Charlotte so admired her work that they supposedly instructed the botanists at Kew Gardens to send Mrs. Delany floral specimens. At the time of her death in 1788, Delany's Hortus Siccus was comprised of ten albums of her work. These albums were later given to the British Museum in 1897.

You'll notice that her collages were pasted onto black paper (I can't confirm whether all of her work was as such, but it seems that most of it was). Occasionally Delany would embellish her work with watercolors, especially if she was having difficulty in achieving the accurate colors. This, however, did not seem to be the rule. Delany was able to source colorful papers, and she was also known to dye her own if particular colors were not available.

On the front sides of her work, Delany tended to include both the scientific and common names of the botanical subjects. You'll also notice that she usually made a cut-out of her initials- MD- on either the bottom right or left corners. From an artistic standpoint, I think it's incredible how detailed the flowers are. Most of her works incorporated hundreds of pieces of cut paper. But what seemed to astonish and impress botanists of that period was the accuracy with which she rendered the flowers. Delany was meticulous about rendering even the smallest detail- veins, stamens, etc.

Unfortunately, images of her work are hard to come by, but I was able to find a few on the web. If you would like to read more about Delany, there is a book that was published a few years ago by one of her descendants-
Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers. I've just ordered it from Amazon, so I'll let you know if it's a worthwhile book.



Winter Cherry, or Physalis, c. 1772-88 (image from the British Museum)


Bay Leaved (Passiflora laurifolia), c. 1777. There are over 230 paper petals in the bloom of the flower. (Image from the British Museum)


Asphodil Lilly (Crinum Zeylanicum), c. 1778 (image courtesy of the British Museum)


Sea Daffodil (Pancratium maritinum)


A stem of a stock, c. 1781 (part of the Royal Collection)

24 comments:

  1. I have such a weakness for black botanicals; had the RL bedding in my first apt. These are lovely, can't wait to hear about the book.

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  2. WMTwigs9:04 AM

    There is (or there was, when I last visited many years ago) a large exhibit of her work at Kew Gardens. Wonderful! Will

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  3. I'm a fan of her work too. I'm drawn to cut paper work anyway, but it's always interesting to learn about Mary since her work, to some people, falls under the "ladies drawing room arts" umbrella and then she took it to another level.

    Anyone who has ever shopped in Anthropolgie will see her influence :)

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  4. Will- Thank you for that bit of information. I'll be in the UK at Christmas, so perhaps I'll look into that. Thanks!

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  5. Courtney- Good point about how people can be dismissive of this type of work. I think that her detailed knowledge of Botany helped to establish her as someone other than a dilettante!

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  6. PoC - you are killing me. First Sybil Connolly now Mary Delany, fantastic!

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  7. Some time during its golden years in the 1980s House and Garden ran a piece on Mrs Delany with several full page images worthy of framing. What a remarkable woman that was! Bits of her correspondence were used to enliven the text of John Fowler's book on 18th century decoration. And for a few season, Brunschwig & Fils offered a delicious "seat and back" cloth inspired by Mrs Delany, woven "cut out" design on dark blue ground. Perhaps the publication of this new book will revive interest in Mrs D.

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  8. HOBAC- I'm on a big Sybil Connolly kick right now. I had to put Sybil and Mary in back to back posts b/c I thought they'd be in good company.

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  9. Toby- Sounds like I need to find that copy of H&G. Love live Mrs. Delany!

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  10. Anonymous7:57 PM

    Yes, Mary and Sybil are great company. Thank you for another amazing post! I hope the book is good- I'd love to be able to have a closer look at these beautiful 'mosaicks'. Christy

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  11. Anonymous7:18 AM

    I so love The Peak of Chic! Very interesting about the Mrs Delany collages. For anyone wanting to see more, visit the British Museum website, click on the Research header and do a search for Delany which will bring up images of many hundreds of these beautiful works. Enjoy.

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  12. Christy- I'll report on the book once I read it. I'd love to see these mosaicks in person!

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  13. Anon- Thank you, thank you! Obviously, I missed this part of the website. I wish I had known about this b/f I wrote the post! I'm off to spend some time looking at more of her work.

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  14. thanks for the art history lesson, great info!

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  15. She is a famous letter writer as well. There are many curious and funny story about the royal family in her letters to Mrs Francis Hamilton.

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  16. These botanicals are lovely! There is a great store in Pasadena that sells botanical paintings and prints... they are fab!

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  17. Francois- I did see a book of her correspondence on Amazon. I'm glad you mentioned this b/c you've convinced me to purchase this book too!

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  18. Fifi- I might just have to make a trip to Pasadena soon ;)

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  19. I love botanicals !She was a great artist .

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  20. Anonymous9:06 AM

    I am looking for information about Mrs. Delany and the Jacobean Lily. I want to know if there are some information about this in the book: Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers. Someone can help me?. I write from the University of Santiago de Compostela. Thank you in advance¡¡

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  21. I have just discovered Mary Delany. I am thrilled to be reading "The Paper Garden" Molly Peacocks wonderful biography of Mary Delanys life and work.

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  22. Please watch out for any pastell art work from the C18 era of Mary Delaney. I am looking for evidence of art making by a contemporary, Lady Ann Bligh Magill (daughter of the Earl of Darnley, widow of Robert Hawkins Magill and wife of Bernard Ward, first Viscount Bangor.

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  23. She also was a famous shell artist. In fact, the lovely book you featured a while back, The Shell, by Ingrid Thomas, has a room at Walton Hall with her stunning shell festoons. She is quite a treasure, that Mrs. Delany.

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