The Paper Garden

The Paper Garden

Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72

Book - 2010
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The Paper Garden is unlike anything else you have ever read. At once a biography of an extraordinary 18th century gentlewoman and a meditation on late-life creativity, it is a beautifully written tour de force from an acclaimed poet. Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700-1788) was the witty, beautiful and talented daughter of a minor branch of a powerful family. Married off at 16 to a 61-year-old drunken squire to improve the family fortunes, she was widowed by 25, and henceforth had a small stipend and a horror of a marriage. She spurned many suitors over the next twenty years, including the powerful Lord Baltimore and the charismatic radical John Wesley. She cultivated a wide circle of friends, including Handel and Jonathan Swift. And she painted, she stitched, she observed, as she swirled in the outskirts of the Georgian court. In mid-life she found love, and married. Upon her husband's death 23 years later, she arose from her grief, picked up a pair of scissors and, at the age of 72, created a new art form, mixed-media collage. Over the next decade, Mrs Delany created an astonishing 985 botanically correct, breathtaking cut-paper flowers, now housed in the British Museum and referred to as the Botanica Delanica.

Delicately, Peacock has woven parallels in her own life around the story of Mrs Delany's and, in doing so, has made this biography into a profound and beautiful examination of the nature of creativity and art.

Gorgeously designed and featuring 35 full-colour illustrations, this is a sumptuous and lively book full of fashion and friendships, gossip and politics, letters and love. It's to be devoured as voraciously as one of the court dinners it describes.
Publisher: Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, c2010
ISBN: 9780771070334
Branch Call Number: ANF 745.54092 PEA
Characteristics: 397 p. : ill. (some col.) ; 21 cm


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rsmbarlow Feb 02, 2014

An unexpectedly lovely book! Thoughtful and thoroughly researched. Reading about flowers was a perfect antidote to late January weather!

Jan 02, 2014

This book is a low-key but surprisingly fascinating read. Its window on a woman's life nearly 300 years ago details how the basic pleasures of living remain the same while the world around morphs this way and that. Added to what we learn about life on the lower rungs of the upper class in England during the 1700s is the beauty of the author's language. Her facility for metaphor and her fluid imagination as she studies Mrs. Delany's flowers bring the characters to life, whether they be paper collages or personalities from a time long gone. A beautiful book lovingly crafted, these words are well worth spending time with.

Jan 22, 2012

A very interesting read – one of a new ‘hybrid’ style which combines traditional biography with personal reflections and philosophical themes. There are so many aspects covered: the lifestyle & roles of an English gentlewoman in the 1700s, the society itself that she moved in (how the nation was so enthralled with the natural world – obsessed with both the discovery of new plants, animals, rocks & fossils and the desire to study and classify them all being just one example) and how the result of these pursuits can be seen in modern establishments and structures like the British museum and Kew Gardens.

A study of the pictures created by Mrs. Delany is intriguing in itself – how they are assembled, with such detail and skill using a newly created technique she developed from to her need to ‘do something’ /express herself when she was immobilized due to a swollen foot yet also unable to take up her previous pursuits of needlepoint and painting as her age limited her ability to use paintbrush or needle. The artistry involved in making authentic representations of these plants, the sheer volume produced and the fact they, along with so much of her correspondences, are still intact several hundred years later is extraordinary. Also, the fact she undertook such an impressive endeavor and gained such pleasure and recognition from it in her early 70’s, after experiencing many of life’s hardships, is also very inspiring.

The author chose an interesting way to organize her material – selecting one picture as a starting point to describe and reflect upon each phase in Mrs. Delany’s life, and through this, sharing connections and reflections on her own life experiences. I felt some of this commentary to be a little out of context, but overall, much food for thought. The author also effectively shows how, whilst tracking down information, and investigating new avenues of interest, one is able to connect with many different people and gain new friendships that make life more interesting and meaningful.

It is profound to consider how connections with the past can be maintained down through generations and how the life of one person can remain an influence on so many other people’s lives today. In the case of Mrs. Delany, her descendants retained her letters, made ‘pilgrimages’ to view her pictures at the Museum and found inspiration, meaning and work through editing her letters and discussing her work. Many others have also been inspired: from the individuals who continue to safeguard, maintain and show her work at the Museum, through to the author of this book and a researcher into how the paper used by Mrs. Delany was made and where it was sourced from

Sep 01, 2011

This is a lovely book - beautiful full-colour plates, sumptous paper throughout, and above all, great writing. (tight, lively, evocative.)
I would not have thought this topic could be so absorbing! I literally could not put the book down.

Dec 29, 2010

This story of a remarkable woman is very well researched & well placed in historical context. Her life work, begun at 72, seems somewhat arcane now but intriguing esp. to those of us interested in all things botanical. The author's attempt to relate her own life experience to that of her subject three centuires earlier is not always convincing. This is a 'good read' all the same.

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