With her first line, Molly Peacock’s biography of Mary Delany grabbed me like the branch of a wait-a-minute tree. “Imagine starting your life’s work at seventy-two.” In 1772 Delany, twice-widowed and mourning her second husband, picked up her scissors and created a new art form — mixed media collage.
It came about, as life-changing discoveries so often do, in a moment of serendipity. What if Delany hadn’t noticed, as Peacock tells us “how a piece of colored paper matched the dropped petal of a geranium.”? What if that jolt of awareness hadn’t impelled the newly-widowed septugenarian to reach for her scissors and cut a perfect petal of geranium from that scrap of scarlet-hued paper?
Over the next decade, until her eyesight began to fail, Delaney created 985 collages of meticulously-cut paper flowers, each one botanicallly correct, each one so stunning a representation ther her paper works were often thought to be paintings. You can visit the British Museum, which has the entire collection, a gift from Delany’s niece soon after her beloved aunt’s death.
Everything about Peacock’s book is a treasure. The book’s designer must have loved being assigned this manuscript — a stunning cover, illustrations throughout the book, the bonus of a frontspiece showing a poppy and a sprig of wild roses. Of course and most crucial is the telling of Mary Delany’s story. Peacock’s research brought Delany so alive that I longed to share a cup of tea with her or better, watch as she drew forth a nearly-living flower from a scattering of gorgeously-tinted papers.
I first read The Paper Garden at a time in my life when 72 was as distant as Australia. Today, it is much closer to home. Peacock’s book reminds me we can remake ourselves within each new day. We can stay alert to serendipity. We can follow our Muse for our own joy. We enliven ourselves every time we fan the spark of life within us. I am doing it right now, sharing this glorious book with you.
Tell me; inspire us all. What has been a Mary Delany moment of serendipitous noticing? How did it reset the course of our day? Your week? Possibly, even, your life?