I just finished the book The Paper Garden by the Canadian poet Molly Peacock about an 18th century woman on the fringes of aristocracy in England, who, in the last decade of her life, invented the technique of collage, creating 985 collaged images of flowers. The story is fascinating though the book becomes a bit too self-indulgent, with the writer weaving her own story into the narrative. For me those personal stories, which might have enriched the narrative, were a distraction from the story of Mary Delany (1700-1788) who lived at the time of the American Revolution and at the end of her life had a graceful friendship with George III and his wife Charlotte, because of their admiration for her flower collages.
The secondary title of the book is An Artist Begins her Life’s Work at the Age of 72, which is what inspired me to look at the book in the first place. This is what is most amazing—that at 72 years old she found her passion and nearly was able to meet her goal of creating one thousand collaged flowers before she died.
The book itself is visually stunning with each chapter starting with an image of one of Delany’s collages. Peacock then stretches metaphor and symbology to its full extent (and beyond) to join the characteristics of the flower she has chosen to that period she is describing in Mary Delany’s life. A conceit that works better in the last few chapters, but seems a bit forced.
The book is filled with musings on creativity and relationship and gender roles, but ah, it is the collages of Mary Delany that take your breath away. She made her own colored papers using watercolor (colored papers were not commercially available) and sometimes glued some actual dried flower parts onto the collages themselves as well. And the pieces she cut out were often quite intricate, delicate, and small. She used flour and water to glue her collages together and it’s surprising the glue has lasted these 240 years. She would sometimes paint shadows with watercolors. All are on black backgrounds that she watercolored as well.
No waning of years for Mary Delany. Her old old age was when she truly blossomed.
The British Museum has the collection of Mary Delany’s flowers and images can be accessed on their site.