The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life's Work at 72

by Molly Peacock

Paperback, 2012




Bloomsbury USA (2012), Edition: Reprint, 416 pages


Biography & Autobiography. History. Nonfiction. HTML: Mary Delany was seventy-two years old when she noticed a petal drop from a geranium. In a flash of inspiration, she picked up her scissors and cut out a paper replica of the petal, inventing the art of collage. It was the summer of 1772, in England. During the next ten years she completed nearly a thousand cut-paper botanicals (which she called mosaicks) so accurate that botanists still refer to them. Poet-biographer Molly Peacock uses close-ups of these brilliant collages in The Paper Garden to track the extraordinary life of Delany, friend of Swift, Handel, Hogarth, and even Queen Charlotte and King George III.How did this remarkable role model for late blooming manage it? After a disastrous teenage marriage to a drunken sixty-one-year-old squire, she took control of her own life, pursuing creative projects, spurning suitors, and gaining friends. At forty-three, she married Jonathan Swift's friend Dr. Patrick Delany, and lived in Ireland in a true expression of midlife love. But after twenty-five years and a terrible lawsuit, her husband died. Sent into a netherland of mourning, Mrs. Delany was rescued by her friend, the fabulously wealthy Duchess of Portland. The Duchess introduced Delany to the botanical adventurers of the day and a bonanza of exotic plants from Captain Cook's voyage, which became the inspiration for her art. Peacock herself first saw Mrs. Delany's work more than twenty years before she wrote The Paper Garden but ""like a book you know is too old for you,"" she put the thought of the old woman away. She went on to marry and cherish the happiness of her own midlife, in a parallel to Mrs. Delany, and by chance rediscovered the mosaicks decades later. This encounter confronted the poet with her own aging and gave her-and her readers-a blueprint for late-life flexibility, creativity, and change..… (more)


½ (47 ratings; 3.7)

User reviews

LibraryThing member whitreidtan
Looking at the rose on the cover of this book, I knew I had seen it before, reproduced on a variety of items. I might even have written letters on notecards printed with its likeness. What I didn't realize was that this is not a painting, it is in fact a paper collage, intricately scissor-cut and
Show More
botanically correct. And more even than that, I had zero idea who the artist was and would have been shocked to find out that Mary Granville Pendarves Delany worked her gorgeous craft only starting at the age of 72 so long ago in 1772 had I not been coveting this book for a while now and so learned a bit about it and the artist behind it.

Poet Molly Peacock has written a fascinating part biography of Mary Delany, part personal memoir, part art criticism, and part introduction to her obsession and role model. Delany's life and the fact that she created her seminal work, now housed in the British Museum and called the Flora Delanica, a collection of 985 detailed, painstakingly constructed, accurate, and magnificent flower mosaicks, creating the art of mixed media collage (paper, paint, and sometimes actual plant parts), at such an advanced age and at a time when she was trying to overcome the grief of having lost the two people dearest to her, first her sister Anne and then her second husband Patrick Delany, is impressive and inspiring indeed.

Each chapter is fronted by a color plate of one of the flower mosaicks from the collection. Drawing parallels between the mosaicks themselves and the events of Mary Delany's earlier life, Peacock uses each flower to tell the story of Mary's life and expose the general life of 18th century women of a certain social standing in England. Delany's life is meticulously researched and interpreted, from her unhappy first marriage to a significantly older, personally repulsive husband to whom she was essentially sold by her guardian uncle through her deep and emotionally satisfying relationship with her sister and lifelong friends to the fulfilling and happy union late in life with her second husband. At the end of each chapter, Peacock interweaves her own biographical portions, drawing parallels in her own life to that of Mrs. Delany. In addition to these two very personal stories, there are also fascinating bits of history and botany and the details of the actual physical composition of the mosaicks as well.

Although the flowers were created long past many of the defining events of Delany's long life, Peacock uses them to illustrate each stage, each restriction, each revelled in independence therein. Coming from a very twenty-first century perspective, Peacock describes the flowers in terms of extreme sexualization. Even readers today will be taken aback by some of the language she uses, especially when considering that she is describing the life of an 18th century aristocratic woman, one to whom these blunt comparisons to female body parts would almost certainly never have occurred. And Peacock certainly reads more into the placement of flowers, stems, and other botanical parts than Delany likely ever intended, not that Delany's conscious intentions necessarily define as far as interpretations of her artwork should go.

Her interpretation of the mosaicks is not the only place that Molly Peacock as author intrudes on the text. Unlike in traditional biographies, she does not remain hidden behind her subject. Her own thoughts and pieces of her own life weave into the narrative as well, accompanying clearly stated opinions. Sometimes the weaving is fairly seamless and other times it comes across as a bit forced. There are rather broad strokes of comparison between the long-dead artist and the modern day poet, because closer examination shows their lives to be more dissimilar than not, although the fire of inspiration burns bright in both of them. And Peacock's tale of discovering Delany's works and then years later finding the awe-inspiring importance in them to herself as an artist and creator is interesting. She shares her reading and researching, her construction of Delany's life with the reader, just as careful examination of Delany's mosaicks reveals their delicate and precise construction to the viewer as well.

There is a sometimes complimentary, sometimes discordant marriage of the 18th century with the 21st century within the pages of this book. Unconventionally constructed, the biography/history/botanical tale is completely engrossing, offering insight into not only the life and times but also the creative process of art in a time when women's lives were quite constrained. The layering of Delany's life with an exposition on her art and the slight overlay of Peacock's life and experiences make for a rich and deep read. When the focus is on Delany, her works, her experiences, and the world she lived in, the book is strongest but the other certainly adds a different and unique perspective. Having made the acquaintance of the fascinating Mrs. Delany, I'd love to one day have the opportunity to see her works in person.
Show Less
LibraryThing member thatotter
The story behind this book is pretty incredible: talented, perceptive 18th-century woman rises above the crappy hand she's dealt and invents a new art form. If this book had simply told Mary Delany's life story, it could have been wonderful. Instead, the author chose to fill the pages with the
Show More
following: oversharing about her own personal life (e.g., cancer scares, relationship with her father, alcoholism, none of which seemed to have any bearing on Mary Delany's story); half-baked, overreaching analysis of the flower mosaics; irrelevant conjectures about what the characters might possibly have felt or done in certain situations.

At one point, the author states that "the sisters must have smelled like the sweet cheese of sleepy girlhood."

...Really? They must have? Really? What is this assertion offering me other than a creeped-out "ecch" type of feeling?

This book felt like a real waste of great material. I'm glad to have learned about Mary Delany, but this was a truly crappy vehicle.
Show Less
LibraryThing member rmaitzen
I loved reading this: it's beautiful, thought-provoking, witty, poignant, and occasionally strange and annoying. Mrs Delany becomes so vivid a presence that, even though we're given the date of her death on page 1, it was still startling when it arrived. And the flowers!
LibraryThing member BooksCooksLooks
This is a non-fiction book telling the life story of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany. A young woman of the 18th century, living in London she is basically sold into marriage by her uncle to an old drunk. This man is her uncle's friend and his money will keep Mary's family solvent. After he dies
Show More
Mary, a young widow comes into her own. But it is not until she reaches the age of 72 that her extraordinary talent truly comes to the fore.
Mary invented the paper collage or as she called it the "mosaick." Using intricately cut pieces of paper she created beautiful works of art using flowers as her motif of choice. The author chooses one of Mary's works to start each chapter using the flower as a metaphor for that stage in Mary's life.
The author also weaves her own life story into the tale. This part was a bit odd for me. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Mary and her life but the comparison's to the author's life pulled me out of time and place and were confusing at times. There were no clear breaks from her life to Mary's life at times and it led to some paging back and forth to figure out who was who and what century I was in.
That being said, the book is written in a delightfully easy to read style for a non-fiction book. Ms. Peacock weaves her words in a way to make Mary's every day come to dramatic life. The details of 18th century life and the peak into the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte are fascinating as Mary became quite close to both of them.
This book sent me off to google Mary's "mosaiks" as my advanced reader's copy had them in black and white. The colored versions are stunning.To think that she started them at 72 years of age and they required her to cut little pieces of paper. Her accuracy is lauded by botanists and her legacy is awe inspiring.
Show Less
LibraryThing member JoyfullyRetired
First, let me say that this actual, physical book is a treat. It's exactly what I want when I spend money on a hardcover book. It's just a bit heavier than most books and it's printed on high-quality paper. There are colored prints of some of Mary Delany's flower "mosaicks" and other pictures
Show More
throughout. The book is the type of treasure that I feel compelled to wash my hands before opening it. I want it to last.

The story of Mary Delany is true but it reads like a great historical novel. The New York Times said it read like a Jane Austen novel. I'm not sure I agree. Mary Delany was a strong-willed woman who managed to do very well in spite of whatever negatives life may have thrown at her. It's a life to be examined and works of art to be enjoyed.

Every word, sentence, and paragraph of The Paper Garden reads like a well-crafted prose or poem. This is Molly Peacock's art form, her craft, and she's very, very good at it. In this book Ms. Peacock talks about the art of Mary Delany but also about the importance of art or craft in one's life that I completely agree with. Here's what she said:

"Craft is engaging. It results in a product. The mind works in a state of meditation in craft, almost the way we half-meditate in heavy physical exercise. There is a marvelously obsessive nature to craft that allows a person to dive down through the ocean of everyday life to a sea floor of meditative making. It is an antidote to what ails you."

In The Paper Garden the author tells us in great detail about the life of Mary Delany and a little bit about herself. I liked that. Molly Peacock made this biography personal and linked it to herself and to me.

Speaking of personal, there's the fact that Mary Delany's best known work didn't begin until she was in her seventies. You can be sure I saw the parallels to my own life. Who can say that a person in their seventies or eighties or nineties can't do intricate art work? Thank goodness Mary Delany didn't believe that.

Every time I open a new book I wonder what kind of new friend I'm going to meet inside. In The Paper Garden I met two new friends that I like equally. I want to spend more time with them. In the book I have lots of passages with sticky notes for re-reading. This book is thought-provoking as well as meditative. I also want to find some prints of Mary Delany's flower collages. And then, I'm going to read more of Molly Peacock's writings. Yes, it was that kind of book for me - a window-opening book. And I want more.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Panopticon2
This is a really odd hybrid of a book. As a biography of a fascinating eighteenth-century English artist, it's wonderful. I truly enjoyed learning about Mary Delany's life and what led to the creation of her incredible flower "mosaicks". If the author had just stuck to biography, all would have
Show More
been well - but instead there are weird interjections throughout the book, in which Peacock shares vignettes of her own life experiences (growing up in a blue-collar family with an alcoholic dad and later marrying a man who battles cancer) and her interpretations of the mosaicks (all she sees when she looks at any flower is female genitalia, apparently). Why she chose to juxtapose these tales with those of Mrs Delany is a mystery to me; I found myself skipping over the content about the author's own life to get back to the good stuff.
Show Less
LibraryThing member millihelen
A book created to house rich full-color reproductions of Mary Delany's flower mosaiks, printed on strong and soft matte paper. I like to think the size and heft of the book were decided on first, the flower reproductions and portraits laid in at the correct intervals, and Molly Peacock's writing
Show More
dictated by this established form.

The story of Delany's life is fascinating, and Peacock tells it in a lyrical way. Chapters begin with a description of one of the flowers and go on to draw parallels between the flower's form and events or emotions in the artist's life. The parallels come fast and furious, zanily and giddily. At first they seem uselessly silly, but as the book goes deeper into the details of this eighteenth-century life, the silliness becomes charming and counterpunctual. Peacock's life appears in parallel too, though only pieces of it, and they don't overwhelm the book. I appreciate that it is not a "one chapter for me, one chapter for her" rhythm. Peacock has the poet's willingness to let a plot line drift off unfinished. Though Delany's life is carried through to the end, the book is really tied up by a return to theme and imagery that calls up echoes through the text.

I find it painful to read most biographies, which have a way of peaking in the middle and degenerating into sadness. Peacock knows this woman's life escapes that arc and offers this story as hope and example for all of us afraid of growing old.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ParadisePorch
This was recommended to me by several people during Nonfiction November in response to my query for reading material "people about making big later-in-life changes".

This is a book to linger over and to savour. The details of Mrs. Delany's life and work match the detail of her art pieces, many of
Show More
which were contained herein in glossy colour. The book had heft - both literally and figuratively.

Unfortunately, I did not have the time to finish it before it was due at the library and therefore feel it unfair to rate it.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Rdra1962
Mary Delany was an extraordinary woman who lived a fascinating life. Her artwork is in a London Museum. This is not the first book written about her life. She left behind a massive collection of letters written to friends and family. The letters documented her day to day life, and gave great
Show More
insight into social norms and customs in her social strata, and it was a life worth reading about. This however is not the book for that purpose. The author of this book has chosen to tell the story of Delany's life focusing on a selection of her famous flower mosaics/collages - an art form Delany is credited with inventing. Peacock has also made the decision to attempt to mirror her own life with that of her subject. For me that interrupted the flow of the story, and I felt the comparisons being made were a stretch.

The author is a poet and I found the writing overly done. Some of descriptions were so over-the-top that they were hilarious. Peacock also seemed determined to draw comparisons between Delany's artwork, done when she was in her 70's, to incidents that occurred throughout her lifetime, some even in her childhood. She would compare the positioning of a flower to something that had happened 50 years prior. It was just not working for me and took me out of the telling of this inspiring woman's life story. Perhaps the artist glued down the flower in a particular way because it worked artistically, was esthetically pleasing?

Ruth Hayden, a relative of Delany, wrote a book based on the letters the family had held onto for centuries.
Show Less
LibraryThing member SandyAMcPherson
Delany was an accomplished woman in the late eighteenth century. That she achieved recognition when women were so poorly regarded in the arts is very satisfying, especially as she was so innovative and started her paper collage work at a later age. That is unusual even now and delightfully
Show More

The biography was approached very differently (in my experience) because Peacock wove some her own memoirs into Delany's life and times. I occasionally found this jarring, a disruptive lack of focus. I never did understand why Peacock's life could be comparable to Mary Delany.

Particularly at odds with women's lives in more recent times, were the passages which described Delany's forced interactions in locked premises with self-centred men attempting to seduce the poor woman. As well, from an artistic premise, how does Peacock's poetry relate to the paper 'mosaicks' that Delany executed? I may have started skimming by then and missed some of the nuances. There were instances where Peacock's surmises about Delany's life were without foundation. Nonetheless, it is physically a beautiful book with attractive illustrations of the botanical artworks.
Show Less
LibraryThing member spinsterrevival
I plucked this off the new books shelf of the Rochester Hills Public Library over ten years ago and devoured it. Rereading it now was as much a delight, and I realized that it may have been the beginning of my love for memoir/biography hybrids.

There’s so much here, but really I just love
Show More
learning about amazing women in the past. Mary Delany created mind-blowing art at 72; really it just gives us all a reason to keep on going just to see what we can do as well.
Show Less
LibraryThing member maggie1944
I loved this unique story of a widow woman who spent years cutting out flowers. Sounds strange, but is quite captivating.


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

416 p.; 4.99 inches


1608196976 / 9781608196975
Page: 0.145 seconds