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Review: The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock



Highlights: A composite of historical biography, memoir, and meditation on the creative process. Beautifully written by an observant poet.
Synopsis: A sympathetic look at the life of a remarkable eighteenth-century woman, with a reassuring theme of late-life self-reinvention.



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Practical and metaphorical discussions of the intricate paper craft involved in creating Mary Delany’s stunning flowers.


Peacock’s tendency to over-sexualize her subject’s life and art. Freudian obsession, anyone?

Posted August 5, 2013 by

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I first came across Mary Delany’s intricate paper flowers at an exhibition held at one of London’s great treasure troves, the Sir John Soane’s Museum, in early 2010. Though at the time I recognized the flower mosaics as gorgeous miniature works of art, it took reading this biography of Delany (1700-1788) for me to truly appreciate their beauty – especially since they were created by an amateur in the last 16 years of her long life.

In this lovely and idiosyncratic book, a beautiful art object in its own right, poet Molly Peacock remembers her various encounters with the eighteenth-century artist – when she first saw the flower mosaics on display, the first time she missed a chance to buy a biography of Delany, the occasion when she passed up a cheap six-volume set of Delany’s correspondence, and so on.

"Mary Delany (née Granville)" by John Opie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“Mary Delany (née Granville)” by John Opie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Paper Garden is principally a biography of Delany, but also a story of Peacock’s life with Delany. As such, The Paper Garden reminded me most of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (one of my favorite family memoirs): both contain a combination of historical biography and memoir, including a few asides about the process of researching the book itself; in both, an artist’s delight in excellence of craft is evident; and both employ the art objects as metaphors for life.

Peacock clearly would have found a traditional chronological biography far too constricting; instead she intersperses biographical narrative with vignettes from her own life, linking everything through the ‘mosaicks’ – through colors, repeated shapes or textures, and imagery of growth or craftsmanship. The book is formed of 13 chapters named after flowers, with a full-color reproduction of that mosaick facing the first page. Peacock states her metaphorical approach thus:

“the mosaicks make use of one of the main tools of the poet: simile. By comparing one thing to another, a simile leaves the original as it is – say, just a flower – but it also states what that is like, making a threshold into another world.”

Sometimes her metaphorizing seems forced and stretched; other times it works perfectly, as with the Physalis mosaick, which she calls

“a self-portrait of the artist as a single stalk of a plant, showing her at four of life’s stages: the green lantern of childhood; the fully dressed, bright orange one with light hip hoops – young womanhood; the lower lantern with part of the dress removed to show the interior of the plant – increasing maturity; and the last lantern, the heart of the aged woman.”

Passion flower (Photo credit: Kuribo [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

Passion Flower (Photo credit: Kuribo [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

Peacock also has a tendency to occasionally over-sexualize the flowers. For instance, she says of the Passion Flower: “The main flower head…is so intensely pubic that it’s as if you’ve come upon a nude study.” And in her preface she makes this rather shocking generalization: “They all come out of darkness, intense and vaginal, bright on their black backgrounds as if, had she possessed one, she had shined a flashlight on nine hundred and eighty-five flowers’ c**ts.” That latter quote seems to me an unfortunate example of Peacock’s use of slang and North American vernacular, which seems inappropriate in conjunction with Mrs. Delany’s image as a very proper English gentlewoman. Indeed, Peacock longs to discover hidden passions in the repressed Mrs. Delany, such as a possible lesbian relationship with her friend Ann Donnellan.


How important is Mary Delany’s life in the scope of this book? Not particularly important, only inasmuch as the frustrations and limitations of her first 70-plus years render more remarkable her late achievements as an artist. Delany (née Granville) was brought up by her aunt and uncle, who had connections in court that raised the prospect of her becoming a lady-in-waiting, but instead she was married off at age 17 to Alexander Pendarves, a sickening (and possibly impotent) drunkard in his sixties. She was widowed after just six years, in rather ironic circumstances. Pendarves fell ill one night and told Mary she was a good wife and he wanted to change his will to leave everything to her. She replied that it could surely wait until the morning, but awoke to find his dead, blackened head on the pillow next to hers. It was a cruel turn of fate that left her with absolutely nothing; she was forced to start life over again from scratch.

Tools for paper flower manufacturing, c. 1790 (Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

German diagram of the tools for paper flower manufacturing, c. 1790 (Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

Mary spent many years traveling, living among women friends and family members and building her other great legacy: the six volumes filled with her thousands of letters, especially her correspondence with her younger sister, Anne. On a trip to Ireland with Ann Donnellan, she met both Jonathan Swift and the clergyman destined to become her second husband, Dean Patrick Delany. Although her chosen spouse was again a fair bit older than Mary, this time it was a love match. When faced with a second widowhood two decades later, this time the bereavement hit her hard and she turned at last to art for solace.

It seems Delany was only able to cultivate her artistic skills (painting and dressmaking prepared her for the delicate hand-coloring and cutting required for the mosaicks) because she had no children; she had the time and freedom to nurture her own talents. Although her art has been dismissed by critics in rather patronizing tones (Wilfred Blunt, writing The Art of Botanical Illustration in 1950, called it “‘quaint’ rather than beautiful,” though “admittedly remarkable for a woman of her age”)[1], the scale of Delany’s achievement is impressive no matter how you look at it.

Photo credit: Bastet78  [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Physalis (Photo credit: Bastet78 [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

She completed 985 intricate paper mosaics within about 15 years, using the eyes and fingers of a septuagenarian and octogenarian; during her most productive month, she finished one artwork per day. It’s impossible not to develop an appreciation for the dexterity and care evident in each mosaic (for example, 230 individual paper tendrils form the head of the Passion Flower), as well as a rough idea of the tools and techniques used in the eighteenth century (such as paper dyeing, scalpel versus scissors, and flour paste.).

Peacock turns to Delany as to a role model, especially as the author is now in her sixties herself: both have had two husbands but no children; both find their purpose in art and hope to leave behind something of lasting value. Like Diana Athill’s late-life memoirs (especially Stet and Somewhere Towards the End) or Sara Wheeler’s paean to middle-aged British lady travelers of the nineteenth century, O My America! (which I reviewed on For Books’ Sake), The Paper Garden is primarily a reassurance to dithering readers: it serves as a timely reminder that it’s never too late to pursue creative passions and make something of this precious and fleeting life.


[1] Quoted in Lisa L. Moore’s interesting article, “Queer Gardens: Mary Delany’s Flowers and Friendships,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 39:1 (Fall 2005), 49-70.

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Rebecca Foster

An American transplant to Reading, England – a fitting place for a fiendish bibliophile. After six years as a library assistant, I am recklessly embarking on a freelance writing career. I review books for Kirkus Indie, The Bookbag, For Books' Sake, We Love This Book, and Bookmarks magazine, and also volunteer with Greenbelt Festival's literature program. I read everything from theology to popular science, but some favorite genres are literary fiction, biography and memoir, historical fiction, graphic novels, and nature writing.


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