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Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Botanical Collages of Mary Delany

Note: all these collages are available at the British Museum
These exact and arresting images were created in the 18th c. by a little old lady.  (She was 72 when she started the project) out of paper she painted then cut and pasted to make a collage. Not only was she a remarkable artist she was altogether a remarkable human being.  There’s something about botany…

Mary Delaney was born into a noble but impoverished English family  in the 18th c.--- the family had made the wrong choice in backing the successor to King Charles II.[i] 

The Merry Monarch had left his younger brother as his heir. Mary’s family felt it was safest to back the designated heir, James, who was deposed.. And did so to their financial ruin since all offices and preferments  flowed from the king. Disaster.

 Mary’s father lost his income from offices he had occupied under Charles II. The family lost it’s footing at court, was forced to retire to the country . 

Mary at 6  was sent to live with an aunt in London who provided her with an excellent education, including cut work in paper, embroidery, water color painting, music, etiquette, dancing lessons--- all to make Mary suitable for a position at court. Mary grew up lively, spirited and artistically talented. She designed and embroidered striking and fashionable clothes for court, and went on hoping for a position as a Lady  in Waiting. This never materialized.

As it became clear Mary was not going to be able to obtain a position at court, the next move the family decided on was to marry her off to provide for her, and generally improve the family position. (This was the common practice. In the 18thc marriage for love was not a central concern, Georgette Heyer to the contrary.)

Another  of the family’s more  unfortunate decisions was to marry Mary at 19 to a 60 year old drunkard—he was rich, but his estates were in Cornwall, far from the court where Mary longed to be. However, if his estates passed to Mary, her male relatives would get control of his money.** which apparently  was her older brother’s plan all along. ( The older brother was legal “head of the family” even though he consistently did extremely stupid things ….)

And then the old drunken husband  died---- it didn’t do the family a bit of good as he neglected to redo his will in Mary’s favor. Foiled again!

 This misfortune doubtless rankled the brother, but turned out to be good fortune for Mary. She was left a modest but sufficient competence to return to London and the court. Mary had her own house and an independent life as an attractive and accomplished young widow. She reveled in it. Mary flirted with Lord Baltimore and was rather miffed that he never proposed. Missed being an American by a whisker....

                         Mary and some friends

She did not re-marry until she was in her 40’s and then for love to a man her family though far beneath her.(He was an Irish clergyman.)
She lived an extremely happy life in Ireland with her husband until he died when she was in her late 60’s.

These astonishing collages are how she dealt with her widowhood and grief, drawing on the paper cutting skills  and watercolor techniques  she had learned at her aunt’s behest  and exercised all her life.Though she never made it to the Court she  was part of a circle of Enlightenment intellectuals, musicians (Handel) and scientists, creating her own  “court”.* 

[i]James of York, the heir to Chas II, was an ardent, fanatical Roman Catholic who reminded the English all too  vividly of the Catholic queen, Bloody Mary and the burning of Protestants at Smithfield during her reign.. So,  Parliament rejected James and chose instead  the Protestant  Mary  and her husband William of Orange to rule.(Mary was a Protestant despite being another Stuart and James’ daughter. Go figure)

 If interested in this period, the BBC mini-series The First Churchills  lays it all out in an entertaining fashion!

2 Actually she lived 6 months of the years with the Duchess of Portsmouth, a great friend, whose magnificent conservatory at Bulstrode provided many of the “models” for the flower mosaics.

3 not until the 1850’s with the passage of the Married Woman’s Property Act did widows retain monetary control.

Books about Mary:
Mrs. Delany Her Life and her Flowers  by Ruth Hayden, British Museum Press

A Paper Garden by Molly Peacock, Penguin Books

And not to be overlooked is Mrs. Delaney and her Circle by Mark Laird  and Alicia Roberts. (Yale Center for British Art). I’m waiting for the paperback!

Had to change the template of the blog and give up the old background---alas!
Progress, whether we like it or not!