[Adapted from Chapter One]
Imagine starting your life's work at seventy-two. At just that age, Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (May 14, 1700-April 15, 1788), a fan of George Frideric Handel, a sometime dinner partner of satirist Jonathan Swift, a wearer of green-hooped satin gowns, and a fiercely devoted subject of blond King George III, invented a precursor of what we know as collage. One afternoon in 1772 she noticed how a piece of colored paper matched the dropped petal of a geranium. After making that vital imaginative connection between paper and petal, she lifted the eighteenth-century equivalent of an X-Acto blade (she'd have called it a scalpel) or a pair of filigree-handled scissors — the kind that must have had a nose so sharp and delicate that you could almost imagine it picking up a scent. With the instrument alive in her still rather smooth-skinned hand, she began to maneuver, carefully cutting the exact geranium petal shape from the scarlet paper.
Then she snipped out another.
And another, and another, with the trance-like efficiency of repetition — commencing the most remarkable work of her life: a series of almost a thousand cut paper botanical collages, each flower composed of hundreds of dots, squiggles, and moons of bright paper on dramatic black backgrounds. Each flower steps forth as onto a lit stage.
How did she have the eyesight to do it, let alone the physical energy? How, with her eighth-decade knuckles and wrists, did she manage the dexterity? Did her arm muscles not seize up? Now Mrs. Delany's works, which she called her "flower mosaicks" or her "Flora Delanica," rustle in leather-edged volumes in the British Museum's Department of Prints and Drawings Study Room, where they have been sequestered since her descendant, Lady Llanover, donated them in 1895.
Seventy-two years old. It gives a person hope.
Who doesn't hold out the hope of starting a memorable project at a grand old age? A life's work is always unfinished and requires creativity till the day a person dies. Even if you've managed major accomplishments throughout your life and don't really need a model for making a mark, you do need one for enriching an ongoing existence.
The flowers are portraits of the possibilities of age. They are aged. They can be portraits of sexual intensity — but softened. Softer, and drier, as our sexuality becomes. Yet they also can be simple botany, nearly accurate representations of specimens. They all come out of darkness, intense and vaginal, bright on their black backgrounds as if, had she possessed one, Mrs. Delany had shined a flashlight on nine hundred and eighty-five flowers' cunts.
Take her Passion Flower for instance. The main flower head of Mrs. Delany's Passiflora laurifolia, Bay Leaved is so intensely pubic that it's as if you've come upon a nude study. She splays out approximately 230 shockingly vulvular purplish pink petals in the bloom,1 and inside the leaves she places the slenderest of ivory veins, also cut separately from paper, with vine tendrils finer than a girl's hair. It is so fresh that it looks wet and full of desire, yet the Passiflora is dry and matte. Laid out diagonally on the page, with its clitoral bump of white and yellow stamens whorled into the central mob of its pistils, it lolls on one side of the stem, balanced by a large bud and two smaller ones with tendrils and leaves.
If you look at the petals under a magnifying glass, you will see that they are cut like little grass skirts, where the strands of grass are attached to a belt. The color, which looks purple in any reproduction, is underpinned by the layers of these grass skirts: first rust, then red, then a dark purple, then a deep pink, then a lighter pink, then a lavender. The red, which you scarcely notice without a magnifying lens, is actually the foundation. It goes all the way around the main flower. The white ring shape that defines the flower's center is one whole piece of ivory paper with twenty-something teeny white cut parts. It is watercolored with tiny maroon dots. The petals pulsate with a little bit of the movement of a hula dancer. Even though they are firmly pasted, you can almost see every grass frond waving. Mrs. D. (as they affectionately call her in the British Museum Print Study Room) didn't know about hula, but she knew about dancing, she knew about skirts, and she certainly knew about complexity. And passion, too — of many kinds. Looking at her Passiflora laurifolia is like reading an immensely challenging book, where each sentence shoots you off into a different thought or dilemma or daydream.
When Mrs. D. picked up her scissors, grief was the chief prompt. After the death of her beloved second husband Dean Patrick Delany in 1768, which followed the death of her sister Anne in 1761, she wrote that she considered each of her flower portraits to be "an employment and amusement, to supply the loss of those that had formerly been delightful to me; but had lost their power of pleasing; being depriv'd of that friend, whose partial approbation was my pride, and had stampt a value on them."
Patrick Delany had not been one of those family-assigned eighteenth-century aristocratic mates. Mary already had one of those as a teenager, and it had almost deformed her emotionally. For her second marriage (and her second life), she decamped from England to live in Ireland, though she maintained her house in London and her ties to family and friends. With Patrick her life metamorphosed from something brittle and sometimes desperate into an existence that was softer and more expansive.
I saw my first flower mosaick on Saturday, September 27, 1986, at the Morgan Library in New York City, after an elderly guard (at least I viewed him as elderly then) eyed me suspiciously as he checked my coat. There, in the beige gallery off the dimly lit foyer, glowed one hundred and ten of the flowers. They had been sent across the Atlantic from the British Museum. The gallery was as underlit as a room beneath the ocean. The handful of viewers almost swam from flower to flower, as though snorkeling to discover coral glimmering through another element. And these were only a tenth of them, emanating from a place beyond sex and beyond death but thoroughly of both.
I find a good dead role model to be ideal. Life has its rushing formlessness, but an existence from centuries ago has a shape. Mrs. Delany's life is so shapely that it feels like a complete work of art, cut and pasted — a still life rich with the captured curves of petals, bristling with the leaf, and still, in a sense, breathing. Her post-life suggestions are succinct and piquant. They almost have a scent, like the imagined perfume that might arise from her blooms.
The Paper Garden is about that life.
Mary Delany's previous seventy-two years in England and Ireland had already spanned the creation of Kew Gardens, the rise of English paper making, Jacobites thrown into the Tower of London, forced marriages, women's floral-embroidered stomachers, and the use of the flintlock musket — all of which, except for the musket, she knew very personally.
She was born Mary Granville in 1700 at her father's country house in the Wiltshire village of Coulston, matching her life with the start of this new century, one that would be shaped by many of her friends and acquaintances. She would see the rise of the coffee house (where she took refuge on the day of the coronation of George II) and of fabulously elaborate court gowns (one of which she designed). She would hear first-hand of the voyage of Captain Cook (financed partly by her friend the Duchess of Portland) and be astounded by that voyage's horticultural bonanza (instigated by her acquaintance Sir Joseph Banks). She would attend her hero Handel's Messiah. She would share a meal with the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni and read in a rapture Samuel Richardson's epistolary novel Clarissa. She would flirt with Jonathan Swift. In middle age, at mid-century, she would see the truth of his cudgel of an essay on Irish poverty, and in her old age she would feel the sting of a revolution on the other side of the world that divided North America into Canada and the United States.
By the time she commenced her great work, she had long outlived her uncle, the selfish Lord Lansdowne (a minor poet and playwright and patron of Alexander Pope); she had survived a marriage at age seventeen to Alexander Pendarves, a drunken sixty-year-old squire who left her nothing but a widow's pension; she had tried to get a court position and found herself in a bust-up of a relationship with the peripatetic Lord Baltimore. But with a life-saving combination of propriety and inner fire, she also designed her own clothes, took drawing lessons with Louis Goupy, cultivated stalwart, lifelong friends (and watched her mentor William Hogarth paint a portrait of one of them), played the harpsichord and attended John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, owned adorable cats, and wrote six volumes' worth of letters — most of them to her sister, Anne Granville Dewes (1701-61), signifying a deep, cherished relationship that anyone with a sister would kill for.
She bore no children, but at forty-three she allowed herself to be kidnapped by love and to flout her family to marry Jonathan Swift's friend Dean Patrick Delany, a Protestant Irish clergyman. They lived at Delville, an eleven-acre estate near Dublin, where Mary attended to a multitude of crafts, from shell decoration to crewelwork, and, with the Dean, renovated his lands into one of the first Picturesque gardens in the British Isles. But she made the spectacular mental leap between what she saw and what she cut four years after he died, and eleven years after her sister died. She was staying with her insomniac friend Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, the Duchess Dowager of Portland, at the fabulous Bulstrode, an estate of many acres in Buckinghamshire. The Duchess, who would stay up being read to for most of the night and rarely rose before noon, was one of the richest women in England.
Do any of these facts contain the secrets of how a seventy-two-year-old woman invented the precursor of what we've learned is a twentieth-century art form — in 1772? She trumped Picasso by a hundred and forty years. The Paper Garden explores her life by following her story through her works: each chapter funnels another part of her life, from her birth in 1770 to her death in 1788, through one of her paper blooms. In exploring her life and her art, sometimes I explore my own life as a poet and a woman in a second cherished marriage, my mother's life, and the life of Ruth Hayden, Mrs. Delany's great-great-great-great-great-great niece, and the author of Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers, very much alive at 88 today. In discovering the life of the ultimate late-bloomer, The Paper Garden relieves us of any guilt about accomplishing our goals early in life, because some things only can be achieved by living long enough.