Art meets craft meets science ca. 1770’s – Meet Mary Delany

Life can be hard

Transport yourself back to England, early 1700’s.  You’re growing up in a fairly well-off family and getting an education, which was huge then.  You’re bright – a natural with needlework, scissor work and painting.  There’s an expectation that you will become a ‘maid of honour’ in the royal household…. but the Queen dies and there’s a power shift.  Then, at 17, you learn that you’re only a pawn.  You’re married off to a 60 year old MP who drinks and suffers from gout.

After years of misery, you’re suddenly a widow.  You’re only 24! Because your alcoholic husband never got around to dealing with his will, you’re also homeless and poor; forced to live with friends and relatives.

A creative journey

In those days, widowhood was a time of freedom.  In spite of her limited resources, Mary Delany continued to learn and meet people, and to work in embroidery and painting.  As she moved around, she kept up a lively correspondence.  She became a member of the Bluestockings, an informal group of social intellectual women.  One of her wealthy friends, the Duchess of Portland, was amassing an impressive collection of art and natural history, and introduced her to botanists.

It’s NEVER too late

At the age of 43, Mary married Dr. Patrick Delany, an Irish clergyman she had met before.  They ended up near Dublin, where both pursued their mutual interests in botany and gardening, and she continued painting, embroidery and shellwork.  25 good years later Dr. Delany died, and Mary was again a widow.

One day, while staying with the Duchess of Portland, Mary noticed the remarkable similarity between a scrap of red paper and a geranium petal.  She picked up her scissors and created her first botanically correct cut paper flower, carefully glued onto a background.  She was 72.  She didn’t stop until her eyesight gave out 10 years later.  In the meantime, she created 985 incredibly detailed, layered and shaded artworks.  People from all over the world sent her botanical specimens to re-create and she became well known.

The legacy

When Mary died in 1788, she left an amazing trove of masterpieces, as well as embroidery, drawings and correspondence.  She is now recognized as an innovator, and the inventor of collage.

How I learned about Mary

I happened on Molly Peacock’s book The Paper Garden and was absolutely smitten.  In 2013, I had the privilege of seeing John Opie’s wonderful portrait of Mary Delany when it was on display at No. 1 Royal Crescent in Bath, and two of her artworks in the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum.  Ruth Hayden’s biography is on my ‘to read’ list.

For the art lovers among you, here is a YouTube video The Pioneering Art of Mary Delany that discusses the importance of her work.

These images are from The British Museum.  The image of the painting is from Wikipedia, originally copied from The Portrait Gallery.