My new book, Deep Trouble, features our main characters hunting for a 18th century collage artist, in the book, named Margaret Granville, based on the real 18th artists, Mary Delany.
Shortly after the death of her second husband Patrick Delany, Mary was taken in by her dear friend the Duchess of Portland. It was here at the Portland family house, Blustrode, that Mary discovered and pursued her art.
One afternoon Mary was contemplating a red ‘geranium’ – probably newly introduced from Southern Africa, and noticed that it was a similar shade to a piece of paper on a nearby table. Seizing her scissors she cut out petal shapes from the red paper. She found green paper to cut into leaves and began assembling the cut pieces as a picture. When the Duchess strode into the room she asked her friend, “what are you doing with the geranium?” thinking Mary was disassembling the real plant. She wasn’t, she was reassembling a perfect likeness using just. cut paper.
In the fall of 1772, Mary wrote her niece, “I have invented a new way of imitating flowers.”
From this happy discovery, Mary merged her life long study and appreciate of accurate botany with her embroidery as well as her learned skills of creating patterns with natural shells.
She was 72.
The Flower Project
There are as many as 200 cut pieces in a single flower collage. Each collage closely resembles an specimen. Mary was acutely aware the purpose of her collection was to preserve the ineffable life of these exotic and unique flowers. She even named her whole collection the Hortus Siccus. (an arranged collection of dried plants). Every piece was labelled with the plant’s Linnaean and common names along with notes on who had supplied the original plant.
Mary did all this with what we could consider limited supplies
Paper – new paper mill in Hampshire for the background
Flower paper from China
Wall paper rejects when the colors had run
She dyed the paper herself to get the right colors.
Glue – egg white or flour and water.
Her work drew the attention of the royal family. The Duchess’s daughter, Lady Weymouth, was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte (the Netflix show, Bridgerton), and in 1776 was “sent by the queen to bring her the hortus siccus.” Which demonstrates again, it’s who you know. The King and Queen were delighted with the collages and began to send Mary a regular supply of exotic specimens from Kew Garden. As her reputation grew, so did the plants sent to her to copy. More than half of the images she created were of new species just introduced to Britain.
King and Queen
By 1778, Mary and the royal couple became friends. During one visit, the king brought a chair close to his and asked Mrs. Delany to sit and show her book of cut out flowers. “Sit down, sit down.” When Mary hesitated, the queen encouraged her to sit , “It’s not everybody has a chair brought them by a king.”
Little House in Windsor
In July 1785, Mary’s dear friend the Duchess of Portland suddenly died leaving Mary (who was now 85 years old) with nowhere to spend her summers, something she had depended on for years.
The king stepped in and offered Mary a little house at Windsor (a grace and favor home). In September 1785, Mary was personally welcomed to her new home by the King and Queen. Here in Windsor Mary was sought after for her wit and companionship.
“I spent a delightful day with Mrs. Delany. . . She is the object of my veneration, and I almost say envy. Such an excellent mind, so cultivated, such a tranquil grateful spirit, such a composed piety! She retains all that tenderness of heart which people are suppose to lose and generally do lose in a very advanced age.”
Edmund Burke call Mary “the woman of fashion of all ages”.
Mary herself wrote:
How thankful ought we to be for the many blessings we enjoy which no body, no accident in life, can rob us of: the reflection of doing our duty, the wonders and beauties of the creation , the love of our real friends as long as we are permitted the enjoyment of their society; and when it is the will of heaven that should cease, the considerations that all trials are sent to refine us for a blessed state, where only true joys are to be found.
For Further Reading
Deep Trouble – Catharine Bramkamp
The Paper Garden – Molly Peacock
Mrs. Delany – Her Life and her Flowers – Ruth Hayden
The Duchess’s Shells – Beth Fowkes Tobin