Sunday, March 11, 2012
Paper Garden by Molly Peacock
Imagine starting your life’s work at seventy-two. At just that age, Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (May 14, 1700-April 15, 1788) a fan of George Frideric Handel, a sometime dinner partner of satirist Jonathan Swift, a wearer of green-hooped satin gowns, and a fiercely devoted subject of blond King George III, invented a precursor of what we know as collage.
One afternoon in 1772 she noticed how a piece of colored paper matched the dropped petal of a geranium. After making that vital imaginative connection between paper and petal, she lifted the eighteenth-century equivalent of an X-Acto blade ( she’s have called it a scalpel) or a pair of filigree-handed scissors the kind that must have had a nose so sharp and delicate that you could almost imagine it picking up a scent. With the instrument alive in her still rather smooth-skinned hand, she began to maneuver, carefully cutting the exact geranium petal shape from the scarlet paper.
Then she snipped another.
And another, and another, with the trance-like efficiency of repetition – commencing the most remarkable work of her life.
Her previous seventy-two years in England and Ireland had already spanned the creation of Kew Gardens, the rise of English paper-making, Jacobites thrown into the Tower of London (among them her uncle), forced marriages, woman’s floral-embroidered stomachers and the use of the flintlock musket.
She was born Mary Granville in 1700 at her father’s country house in the Wiltshire village of Coulston. She would see the rise of the coffee house and of fabulously elaborate court gowns. She would hear first- hand of the voyage of Captain Cook (financed partly by her friend the Duchess of Portland) and be astounded by that voyage’s horticultural bonanza (instigated by her acquaintance Sir Joseph Banks). She would attend her hero Handel’s Messiah, share a meal with the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni and read in rapture Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa. She would flirt with Jonathan Swift. In middle age at mid-century, she would see the truth of his cudgel of an essay on Irish poverty, and in her old age she would feel the sting of a revolution on the other side of the world.
By the time she commenced her great work, she had long outlived her uncle, the selfish Lord Landsdowne (a minor poet and playwright and patron of Alexander Pope); she had survived a marriage at seventeen to Alexander Pendarves, a drunken sixty-year-old squire who left her nothing but a widows pension; she tried to get a court position and found herself in a bust-up of a relationship with the peripatetic Lord Baltimore. But with a life-saving combination of propriety and inner fire, she also designed her own clothes, took drawing lessons with Louis Goupy, cultivated stalwart, lifelong friends (and watched her mentor William Hogarth paint portraits of them), played the harpsichord and attended John Gray’s The Beggar’s Opera, owned adorable cats, and wrote six volumes’ worth of letters – most of them to her sister, Anne Granville Dewes (1701-61), signifying a deep, cherished relationship that anyone with a sister would kill for.
She bore no children, but at forty –three she allowed herself to be kidnapped by love and to flout her family to marry Jonathan Swift’s friend Dean Patrick Delany, a Protestant Irish clergyman. They lived at Delville, an eleven-acre estate near Dublin, where Marry attended to a multitude of crafts, from shell decoration to crewelwork and, with the Dean, renovated his lands into one of the first Picturesque gardens in the British Isles. She painted uncounted canvasses for her husband’s new chapel at Delville, copies of works such as Guido Reni’s Madonna and others by Van Dyck, Lely and Rubens.
But she made the spectacular mental leap between what she saw and what she cut four years after Patrick Delany died. She was staying with her insomniac friend Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, the Duchess Dowager of Portland, at the fabulous Bulstrode, and estate of many acres in Buckinghamshire. The Duchess, who would stay up being read to for most of the night and rarely rose before noon, was one of the richest women in England. Her Dutch-gabled fortress, presiding over its own park, with its own aviary, gardens, and private zoo, housed her collections of shells and minerals and later the Portland Vase, a Roman antiquity which now occupies a spot in the British museum. By then the two women had been friends for more than four decades (They met when Margaret was a little girl and Mary was in her twenties.
Mary Delany took the organic shapes she had cut and recomposed them in the mirror likeness of that geranium, pasting up an exact, life-size replica of the flower on a black piece of paper.
Then the Duchess popped on.
She couldn’t tell the paper flower from the real one
Mrs. D, which is what they affectionately call her at the British Museum, dubbed her paper and petal paste-up a flower mosaic, and in the next ten years she completed nearly a thousand cut-paper botanicals so accurate that botanists still refer to them – each one so energetically dramatic that it seems to leap out from the dark as onto a lit stage. Unlike pale botanical drawings, they are all done on deep black backgrounds. She drenched the front of white laid paper with black watercolor to obtain a stage-curtain-like darkness. Once dry, she’s paste onto these backgrounds hundreds – and I mean hundreds upon hundreds – of the tiniest dots, squiggles, scoops, moons, slivers, islands and loops of brightly colored paper, slowly building up the verisimilitude of flora.
“I invented a new way of imitating flowers,” she wrote with astonishing understatement to her niece in 1772.
How did she have the eyesight to do it, let alone the physical energy. How, with her eighth decade knuckles and wrists, did she manage the dexterity? Did her arm muscles not seize up? Now Mrs. D.’s work rustle in leather-edged volumes in the British Museums Department of Prints and Drawings Study Room, where they have been sequestered since donated by her descendant Lad Llanover in 1895.
Seventy-two years old. It gives a person hope.
Living a full life requires invention, but that needs a previous pattern, if only to react against it, happily to re-figure in the making of something new. A multitude of vectors bring us to the moment where we are, and where we love, or cough, or say the wrong thing or fail, of feel our fate in what we fear, or to a moment where clarity descends, and we understand the world simply from having observed it. Uncontrollable events hurtle towards us until the very moment of our deaths, yet in each instant figuring out how to go on, even on to the next world, repeats the confusion of youth. Of course we need our role models long past adolescence.
To search a drawer or a pocketbook or a botanical bibliography, even to search a littered table or beneath the leaf of a geranium, means feeling for one’s conscience and one’s heart, looking for something that will compete – with a key, a tissue, a truth, a love, a victory, a seed –an instant of one’s being or perhaps one’s whole life. In a sliver of knowledge, time is obliterated and reinstated. A single instance, the fall of a petal, or the swirl of the paper that imitates and becomes it, flourishes an answering likeness.
The Paper Garden; An Artist Begins her Life’s Work at 72; by Molly Peacock; Bloomsbury, N.Y. 2010