I thought, that as I have scant chance of writing blog posts of any merit over the next few weeks, that I'd instead repost a couple of my favourite blog posts from many years past. Long term blog readers, please excuse my laziness in reposting some of them, but I hope that newer readers might enjoy them instead. I will try to write a couple of other blogs before Christmas, but in the meantime, here is one of my favourite posts.

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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

17 comments:

  1. Wow. I love this post! Fascinating. I am very encouraged by Mary's story. What a talented woman.

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    1. She was such an interesting woman - I'm so glad you enjoyed the post

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  2. I'm so happy you re-posted this as I missed it the first time and it's so interesting. I didn't know the first thing about Mary Delaney though her work looks familiar to me and it is of course so exquisite. Thank you for the book suggestions because I would love to learn more about her. xx

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    1. I think it is very familiar to many people in a vague sort of way Dani - the collages are really held up in such high esteem within the art/ natural history world and have been used as source reference for so many designers in all sorts of fields. The book I read was fabulous, and I'm sure you'd love it x

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  3. Fabulous Heidi. You inspire me. I have ordered the book from my local library. Judith

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    1. I'm so glad you found this interesting Judith, and I hope that you enjoy the book x

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  4. Fascinating, thank you. Jules

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    1. It's so unusual to find such an interesting woman, who has such a well documented life in that era. So glad you enjoyed the post Jules

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  5. Heidi, This is so interesting. Her work was exquisite - wonderful that she's recognised today as the great artist she was. And such an interesting life. So glad she found happiness in her second marriage.
    Have just begun reading the Life and Friends of Madame Recamier - in some ways a very little similar to Mrs Delaney's. Her parents sent her to a convent for her early life and by the author's account she was very happy there, sheltered and protected and very religious. She was then brought home and at the age of 15 was given by her parents in a marriage of convenience to a well to do man in his 40s. The author later speculates that the man her parents married her to may in fact have been her natural father (her mother apparently had had several lovers, including this man). The marriage was to offer her protection and money in society of that time. So she lived a virginal life in his care. He seems to have been fond of her as she may have been of him. He became increasingly rich. She grew up to be one of the greatest beauties and charmers of her age. Her salon was one of the most brilliant - attracting writers, politicians, the nobility and radicals. One of Napoleon's brothers fell in love with her and wrote letters declaring his passion. She showed them to her husband and offered to exclude him from the salon. But her husband was street smart and advised her to keep on goods terms with him but not to encourage him otherwise. It's fascinating and sad - a young, beautiful and virtuous woman condemned to a marriage without romance or sex. She could never fly free of her gilded comfortable cage. But was greatly admired and loved by many in society of that time. Pammie

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    1. That book sounds absolutely fascinating Pammie - I will have to look it up. I have only just managed to wade through that Marie Antoinette biography I bought in Hobart with you over a year or so ago though!! I haven't done a lot of reading this year, and the bedside table is positively groaning with all the books I want to read. I was buying books for Christmas presents the other day, and started picking up ones for myself.... then reluctantly put them back. Too much to read already!! Hopefully over January when things are quiet I'll get a chance. xx

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    2. Wouldn't be available in a normal bookshop. It's from late 1920's and my copy is scruffy and foxed. Found at Lifeline Book Fair or Op Shop. Still working my way through. So interesting - apparently Napoleon himself was smitten by her but was rejected (she was v high minded - and at that time anyway apparently faithful to her husband - later there was her great love Chateaubriand, diplomat and noble). Understandable but not a good move, nor was her friendship with famous Madame de Stael whom N regarded as an enemy and exiled. Ultimately he exiled Mme R as well, for years. She was only able to return to Paris after N himself was exiled. Hadn't quite realised before the extent to which exile was a method of punishment in those days. N's two exiles (imprisonments really) but not all the others. Better than alternative during The Terror of course. They were tumultuous and volatile times with periods of peace when the salons, arts and fashion flourished. Happy to lend it to you when finished if you think you'll have time. Writing style a bit dated.
      We generally spend a few days in small boutique Hotel Recamier in Paris - it prompted my interest. The building also has links to famous American writers of 20/30s - Djuna Barnes lived there while writing NightWood and was visited by F Scott and Gertrud Stein.
      Glad you've been able to finish Marie Antoinette book - it's a sense of achievement sometimes. I have heaps of books to read, making me feel guilty while they languish in piles, all picked up v cheaply at Lifeline, fetes etc - they all look good, but some are doorstoppers. Only finished Peter O'Toole's autobiographical volume about his days at RADA - with a few dips back further and forward in his life. Interesting but at times a bit difficult to read. Have already promised it to a friend here who's also a P O'T fan. Next planning on reading Arianna Stassinopoulos' biography of Picasso - ooops she's now called Arianna Huffington (Huff Post). She was President of Cambridge Union for some of the time we were there so we knew her v slightly back then (G was Wolfson's rep on Union). Now she was a remarkable woman too.
      Fingers crossed you get a chance to do some reading during the hols. Pammie xx

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  6. What extraordinary work. Thank you for sharing this. I'm mad for botanicals.

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    1. I am too Jen. Her work was absolutely exquisite, and her life is a fascinating one for the time. x

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  7. Such an interesting post. Thank you Heidi.

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  8. What an interesting woman and think she must have encountered my hero, Dr Johnson, at one of those Bluestocking gatherings.

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    1. Most likely she did. She was friends or acquaintances with pretty much all the leading figures of the day G

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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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