By the time Mary Delany died at age 88 in 1788, she had outlived two husbands, mingled with Handel, befriended King George III and Queen Charlotte, lived in Windsor and had created almost 1,000 mixed media collages.
Born in 1700, Mary grew up in London, where she learned grammar, French, music, dancing and needlework. She was married (through her uncle’s arrangement and coercion) at 17 to a much older (and drunker) Alexander Pendarves. When he died, she moved back to London where she took painting lessons from William Hogarth, heard Handel play, and floated freely around society. Through her friend Jonathan Swift, she met and married (in 1743) her second husband, protestant Irish clergyman Patrick Delany, with whom she lived in Dublin and enjoyed a happy marriage until his death in 1768.
We know much about Mary because she started a memoir mid-life, and because her letters are almost as prolific and colorful as her flowers. But one gets the purest essence of Mary by standing before one of her creations, which look (until you lean in only inches from the paper) like canvases with a liberal application of paint. The collages are now housed at the British Museum.
… one gets the purest essence of Mary by standing before one of her creations, which look like canvases with a liberal application of paint.
Mosaiks, she called them at first. Employments. Amusements. They were a way to deal with the loss of her second husband. In her grief, she turned to creation. She brought a dark background to life with (sometimes hundreds of) layers of color. The collages offer botanical precision as well as beauty. Mary was so concerned with cataloging nature that it takes an intimidating magnifying glass to see every detail.
She told her niece, Mary Port, “I have invented a new way of imitating flowers.” She amassed parchments, mixed pigments, and used scissors and scalpels to achieve what she came to call her Flora Delanica. Prime Ministers and preeminent horticulturalist and botanists presented her with flowers to recreate, some coming from the Royal Botanic Gardens. Her friend Margaret, the Duchess of Portland, couldn’t tell the real flowers from Mary’s art.
Perhaps I’m alone in finding comfort that, at 72, Mary’s creative life was about to open up like a magnolia — that she was free from today’s pervading sense of urgency. In a capricious, impulsive moment while loitering in Margaret’s lobby, Mary picked up scissors and paper and snipped an exact imitation of the geranium in front of her. She allowed her life to blossom as organically as the botanicals she so loved.
In 1788, Mary rode a carriage through the verdant countryside and within a week died quietly and quickly of a common cold, happy and complete.
FOLLOWING HER LEGACY: Ask yourself, how is your own creative life unfolding? Is there something that you’re letting your age hold you back from pursuing?