If you've visited the British Museum you may well have seen Mary Delany's stunning paper collages. Begun when she was a 72 year old widow in the 18th Century in England, she is the inventor of paper collage, and her botanically accurate depictions of some 1000 different specimens are true works of art as well as science. Each of her collages is made up of individually hand-cut coloured paper which has been glued to black backing paper. She finally put down her scissors aged 82 due to her failing eye sight, after an industrious and unconventional life marked by her sophistication, intelligence, friendships (with many luminaries such as the composer Handel, writer Jonathon Swift and Sir Joseph Banks the botanist), and her talent in Art and Music. As I mentioned recently in a blog post, I read a fascinating book about her life, Mary Delany, her Life and Her Flowers. I love books about social history and women's lives over the ages, and Mary Delany lived quite an extraordinary life.


Born Mary Granville into a family of lower ranked nobility, she had association with the English Court through her widowed Aunt and was educated in French, English, History, Needlework, Dancing and Music in London for the life at Court it was assumed she would have. A change in the Monarchy with the death of Queen Anne led to Mary's family fortunes turning. Their reduced circumstances lead to her being pressured into a marriage, aged 17, with a 60 year old man of means. She was desperately unhappy, but he eventually died, leaving her widowed aged 23. Unfortunately he had not altered his will, and his estate passed to his niece, leaving her with a very small widow's stipend.



Mary was determined not to remarry (widows were able to move much more freely in society), and she remained single until she was in her early 40's (and was known as a Bluestocking through her friendship with that group). During this time she was active at Court and in Society, much sought after for her wit, humour and intelligence. She was also known for setting fashions, albeit in a more 'stylish' manner than being a pure trendsetter. Much of what she wore she designed herself, and also embroidered quite exquisitely. She made a court dress of black silk, which was embroidered all over with silk flowers, each different and unique (a precursor to her paper collages), and which has been passed down in her family.


embroidered panels from her court dress

Eventually she remarried, this time for love, to Irishman Dr Patrick Delany (against her family's wishes). She then entered a very settled and industrious period spending each day in paper cutting silhouettes, as an avid gardener (many of her letters reference with interest the work that Capability Brown was doing landscaping friend's and family member's estates in the revolutionary manner that became known as the Landscape Style), in shellwork (she created a shell grotto at a friend's house, as well as covering furniture, mirrors and ceilings in shells), embroidery (designing and embroidering curtains and chair covers for her home as well as her clothes), reading, playing music and doing all of these things in the company of her friends, of whom she had many. 



After the death of her husband, when she was 72, she moved back to England, living with the Dowager Duchess of Portland, a close friend. Both had an interest in Botany, which lead them to friendships with botanic luminaries such as Sir Joseph Banks. Her paper collages were the culmination of her scientific knowledge of plants, her artistic skill with colour and texture, and her extraordinarily high skill level in cutting fine and tiny pieces of paper to create silhouettes. These caught the eye of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George 3rd, who became good friends with Mrs Delany (as did the King himself), and encouraged her in her pursuit.



Mrs Delany's flowers have inspired many artists and designers. Of course, collage is now considered quite mainstream, but she was the trailblazer. Carolina Herrera sent out a catwalk collection for Spring 2011that featured botanic specimens on black that were definite homages to Mrs Delany's work.



I found her life so interesting on so many levels - she was a clearly intelligent woman, who was trapped by the circumstances of her sex, and the era that she was born into, to live a life that was not of her choosing. But after being given her freedom by the death of her first husband, her path was not conventional in the least. She waited to marry again for love, rather than social position or financial security (she apparently had many offers of marriage that she turned down). Her artistic skill, creativity and industriousness are completely inspiring, as was the fact that she was quite old when she began her real life's work of her one thousand botanical collages - there is hope for us all! 


There are several books written about her life. The one I read Mary Delany, Her Life and Her Flowers, was written by a descendant of her sister, but there is another more recent release titled The Paper Garden written by Molly Peacock and which is a slightly more dramatised version of Mrs Delany's life. Mary Delany lived a fascinating, industrious and creative life, a life that was inspiring on many levels.

all images via Pinterest

29 comments:

  1. What a great character! I must go back and properly view her work up close as even the pictures show how manually dextrous she must have been. Women who achieved anything back then surprise me. How tough of her to remain single and marry for love - she was a pioneer in many way. Love that CH did a homage to her as well. Next time I go there I will snap a few extra pics for you! xx

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    1. You're lucky you've got such easy access - I haven't been to the Museum since I lived in London, and can't say I remember actually looking at her collages. It's definitely on my list for the next visit. xx

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  2. Thank you for sharing more about Mrs Delaney's extraordinary body of work. I discovered some books and information about her over recent years yet found few others who knew of her. The detail of her work is astounding. There are days now when I struggle to see the detail in my embroidery and I have glasses and very good lighting on my side, not to mention being a bit younger than she was too.

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    1. Her embroidery is absolutely incredible - such skill, and the fact that she did the designs herself (rather than following a pattern book...), puts me to shame with my little bits and pieces I produce. I'm surprised at how few people have heard of her as well - I passed the book on to my Mother in Law as she was very intrigued when she heard what Mrs Delany had produced. xx

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  3. Great post Heidi. I think that is a book I would enjoy reading. Better then chick-lit. Her embroidery work is so gorgeous. I often think of the things we could achieve if we didn't faff away our time. (I'm a huge faffer)

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    1. It was a very easy book to read - she was so interesting... and know what you mean about faffing away time. I am the Queen of it (says she who should be doing a boring electrical plan, and is instead on the Internet...)! xx

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  4. Thank you for this fascinating and informative post. I had never heard of Mary Delaney before, but how inspiring to create such stunning works of art while in her 70s, and at a time when women's lives were so constrained. There is hope for us all! I must go look up the biographies you mentioned. Thanks again!

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    1. I loved so much that she just kept going, and produced her best work in her very advanced years... it's nice to turn on its head the idea that you reach your career high in your 30's or 40's and it's all downhill from there. I highly recommend the books - she was so interesting xx

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    2. Yes, agree, it's a great post. Thank you for bringing this to our attention - so very interesting - had never heard of her before. She was remarkable and it sounds like a lovely book to read. Wish I'd known about her before. Also, impressive and perhaps inspiring that she didn't begin the work she's famous for her until her old age!
      Don't worry about reading W and P just now. You'll read it at some point when you have the time, or not. If you try to read it because you feel you should, you probably won't enjoy it and that would be a pity. Best wishes, Pamela xx

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    3. Oh you'd love the book on her - she's such an interesting person.... I'll definitely get back to War and Peace - was having trouble following the characters due to tiredness and the fact that they tend to have 3 different names depending on who is speaking to whom (titles, nicknames, family names etc), so found it slightly confusing at times. I was quite enjoying reading the War parts though - I really don't know a huge amount about the Napoleonic war, so was finding that really interesting. xx

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    4. It's such an enormous and all embracing book. That's why I re-read it about every ten years because each time different things stand out. Things I'd skimmed in past readings suddenly resonate. Aim to read the Mary Delany book too but have so many on the go just now - and also putting lots of holiday pics up on Facebook. Have just finished Duff Cooper's autobiog - really interesting about the lead up to WWII, though in some parts his ideas are very dated, just natural I guess. Also it's almost entirely about his work life. His son only gets a line or two at a few points and his wife Lady Diana doesn't get much either. Neither does he mention any of his numerous affairs which wd have been interesting. For light relief now reading a Peter Mayle fiction. Have also begun reading a biog of Napoleon. Also one of the girls from the garden tour is going to lend me her Madeleine St John collection. So much to read so little time. Yes the Russian family names, patronymics etc can be confusing but I just love W and P. Some years ago in St Petersburg we saw a joint production of W&P by the Kirov/NY Metropolitan Opera companies. Absolutely wonderful. Best wishes, Pamela xx

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    5. The Duff Cooper biog sounds interesting... I worked for his grandson in London very briefly (he is an Architect -Jason Cooper). I remember he had a few family things sprinkled around the place (large portrait of Diana - he worked from home at the time). I love Madeleine St John's Women in Black - haven't read her others, but she had such acerbic wit and observation. The opera sounds amazing - you were lucky to see it. Good luck with the photo loading.. I have a love/hate thing going on with Facebook. The photo loading can be particularly painful! xx

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  5. Wow Heidi. What an amazing woman. And that needlework is SO incredibly beautiful. She was a true artist. I have not heard of her but am now intrigued. Cheers Tammy

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    1. Her needlework is absolutely exquisite.... how lovely it must be for her descendants to get to look at it every day (the pieces are now framed). And yes, a true artist in some unexpected mediums. xx

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  6. Thanks for the introduction to Mrs Delaney. What beautiful bodies of work.

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    1. They are indeed - I'd love to be able to produce even one of her pieces, let alone 1000 xx

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  7. They are bold and detailed at the same time....and a fascinating life too. These bluestockings were courageous and committed beyond our capabilities in our own time in the West, I rather fancy. x

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    1. They are incredibly detailed - the shading and the absolutely fine texture of petals and stamen etc - quite incredible. I loved reading about the Bluestockings storming parliament. So feisty and indeed courageous xx

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  8. Thanks once again Heidi on a great post. Really enjoyed learning about this interesting lady, hope for me yet!

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  9. what an extraordinary woman... I loved the Herrara botany colection and it was great to hear the story of Mary Delany who inspired it

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    1. I remember looking at that Herrera collection and loving it... and not realising until much later (when reading the book) that it was inspired by her collages. Sometimes it takes a while for the penny to drop for me! xx

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  10. I'm thrilled to read your post as your book recommendations are usually spot on!!... In fact, Diana Mosley by Anne de Courcy arrived today. As I adore flowers and creative women, I know I'll love this book. Your post is such a thorough synopsis Heidi - thanks so much!! xx

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    1. So glad you like them! I often wonder if I'm writing about the books just for myself, so it's nice to know that my recommendations are enjoyed by others. You would love this book - it was so easy to read (it's not that long), lots of photos of her work. It was a little hard to buy though... available from the British Museum website, or secondhand through Abe books online (I bought it second hand, but it took 3 months to arrive from England!!!). Hope you enjoy Diana xx

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  11. What a talented and creative lady who was so inspirational too. I'm so pleased to hear that she eventually married for love as it must have been difficult for her to be pressured into marrying at seventeen to someone so much older. I haven't heard about her before so thanks for the introduction. Great post! Always a pleasure to visit your blog as the topic is always a surprise!
    http://missbbobochic.blogspot.co.uk/

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it - she had such an interesting life, and it was so nice that she found love later in life, and waited for it... there's something quite modern about it in a way. xx

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  12. Loving that first dress <3

    Thank you so much for the brick fence feedback. I really value and appreciate your advice.

    The thing with the fences in our street is that they are really old, and by old I mean falling apart old :(

    Our next door fence is very very low, and the one on the other side is around 1.8m high. Another issue is, that the side fences on our block are different heigh :( - one is raked and the other one is around 1.8m high. Will it look all over the place if we go with 1.6m pillars which won't match either of the two side fences on our property?

    B

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    1. Hi B, I went back to your blog and answered your question - let me know if it doesn't make sense! Good luck! xx

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  13. Just an FYI - not the same thing but still fun to browse through.

    weather is odd and too many tourists so decided to do this instead!

    http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx?searchText=mary+delany

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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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