Friday, 24 June 2011

Mrs Delaney

"Nanna Power!" shrieks the headline in my morning newspaper. It seems that three old ladies went ninja in a Malvern parking lot, routing a would-be bag snatcher.
Nanna Power is nothing new: more than three hundred years ago, Mrs Mary Delany started her remarkable artistic venture at the age of 72 and only stopped creating her masterpieces ten years later, when her eyesight failed.

Over that decade she created 985 magnificent mixed-media collages depicting flowers. The collection is housed today in the British Museum: ten large albums known as the Flora Delanica. The pictures are not only beautiful, they are botanically correct. Indeed, Sir Joseph Banks declared that these collages were ‘the only imitations of nature that I have ever seen from which I could venture to describe botanically any plant without the least fear of committing an error'.

Mary Granville was born in 1700 into an aristocratic but impoverished family, who recouped their fortunes by marrying her off at the age of 17 to Alexander Pendarves, a rich geriatric with poor personal hygiene and a penchant for the bottle. Mary's letters to her sister describe him as her jailor, “disgusting,” "dirty" and “excessively fat”. One can only hope that his age and alcoholism prevented too many conjugal demands on his teenage wife.

Luckily his dissolute lifestyle made her a childless widow at 25 and for the next twenty years Mary enjoyed her independence. Widows in Georgian times had freedom which married ladies and spinsters did not.

She carried on a voluminous correspondence with her sister, which is why we know a lot about her today. Her life reads like a Georgette Heyer novel: she socialised with people like Jonathan Swift, Handel and Samuel Richardson, went to balls and assemblies, and received many proposals of marriage. She flirted and danced, but she would not accept anyone until she met Jonathan Swift's friend, Dean Patrick Delany, when she was 43. He was a Protestant Irish clergyman. Her family was outraged that she would marry beneath her, but she didn't need their permission and besides, she didn't think they had a good track record of choosing her husbands.

It was a very happy marriage - the couple, who shared a love of plants and natural history, lived at Delville, the Dean's 11-acre estate near Dublin. They created a wonderful landscaped garden, incorporating a bowling green, terraces, flower walks and fruit trees. There was a grotto and an orangery and fields where deer grazed.

When the Dean died after 25 years of marriage, Mary was traumatised. She went to stay with her dearest friend, The Duchess of Portland, at Bulstrode, the ducal estate in Buckinghamshire. It was here that she found a renewed interest in life when she discovered "a new way of imitating flowers", as she wrote to her niece in 1772.

She saw a geranium petal fall on to the dark surface of the table at which she was writing, and it struck her that the colour was the same as a piece of red paper lying on the table. She cut a twin petal out with her embroidery scissors and showed them both to the Duchess, who couldn't pick the real one.

That was the beginning of what she called her "flower mosaicks". They were collages, using coloured paper and sometimes parts of the actual plants, which she dissected with a scalpel to see exactly how they looked. She mounted all her "mosaicks" on a black background, which made them stand out in glowing colours.

The Duchess had one of the greatest natural history collections in the country at Bulstrode but Mrs Delany also received specimens from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and had seen the floral specimens that Captain Cook brought back from Australia. As her fame grew, many botany enthusiasts sent her specimens to copy. She was persona grata with King George III and Queen Charlotte, and visited them at Kew. They greatly admired her work and also provided her with specimens from the royal gardens and hothouses.

Considering the tools and materials she had to work with, the exquisite and accurate pictures that she produced are astonishing. For a start, she couldn't pop out to the art suppliers for a few sheets of assorted coloured papers, glue and a Stanley knife.

The thousands of “the tiniest dots, squiggles, scoops, moons, slivers, islands and loops of brightly colored paper” that she glued onto the black backgrounds, all had to be made from scratch. In fact, she had to make the background itself first. She would paint a sheet of rag paper with black pigment which she made using tar, pitch, soot and charred bones to get that deep black she wanted.

The coloured papers for cutting out were obtained by painting with water colour the handmade rag paper which was all that was available at the time. Watercolour? Not commercially available until long after she stopped working. Pigments had to be ground in a pestle and she would have to experiment to discover the best proportions of gum arabic, water, ox gall and/or honey to mix them with.

We assume she used egg white or a glue paste of flour and water, but the conservators at the British Museum are reluctant to damage a mosaick in order to get a chemical analysis. Amazing enough that whatever she used still holds it all together!

She used surgical scalpels, razors and long-nosed scissors, embroidery bodkins and tongue depressors. Young ladies of her day were taught to cut out delicate silhouette pictures, and that experience must have stood her in good stead.

Photographic reproductions of her pictures look like paintings - it is only when you go to the British Museum's website and zoom in to a magnified image that you can see the complicated overlapping layers that make up the details.

It was Mrs Delany's ambition to complete a set of 1,000 mosaicks, but her failing eyesight threw a spanner in the works. Next to a good stationer, an optometrist is what she could have used!

I can recommend Molly Peacock's book "A Paper Garden", which is available at all good bookstores and libraries. Mary Delany's story is a fascinating insight into Georgian society and the illustrations are magnificent.

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