Flora Delanica: Art and Botany in Mrs. Delany’s “paper mosaicks”

by Christine Cariati

Mary Delany, Pancratium Maritinum, 1778
Collage of colored papers with watercolor
British Museum

For much of her long life, Mary Delany (1700-1788) was in many ways a typical 18th century society woman of accomplishments. She was an excellent “amateur” artist and also mastered the arts of japanning, silhouettes and embroidery. She was a prolific letter writer and, influenced by the work of Samuel Richardson, wrote a novel, Marianne, which she illustrated. Mrs. Delany was also an avid student of botany, zoology and the natural sciences. But it was at the age of 72 that Mary Delany began the work that brought her lasting renown: her Flora Delanica—nearly 1000 botanical collages that she completed over the following decade. These “paper mosaicks,” as she called them, are incredibly intricate and delicate, the level of detail and botanical accuracy is stunning. Many of the works are comprised of hundreds of impossibly tiny fragments, yet every tendril retains a lovely, graceful line. Admirers of Mrs. Delany’s work included artist Sir Joshua Reynolds and botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who said that her mosaics

were the only imitations of nature that he had ever seen, from which he could venture to describe botanically any plant without the least fear of committing an error.

John Opie, Mary Granville, Mrs. Delany, 1782
Oil on canvas, The Royal Collection

Mrs. Delany was never very wealthy and held no powerful positions at court, but she was extremely well-connected and respected in the influential circles of Georgian Britain. She knew Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, George Frederic Handel, John Wesley and Samuel Johnson and was a great friend of the Duchess of Portland. Born Mary Granville to a younger son of a Tory aristocrat in Wiltshire, she was married at the age of 17 to Alexander Pendarves, an M.P. 40 years her senior, who died four years later. While she was Mary Pendarves, she designed a stunning court dress, an intricate and delicate floral on black satin—in this work we can see the beginnings of her later masterful collages.

Mary Delany, court dress, detail, silk embroidery on satin, 1740-41

While visiting Dublin she met her second husband, Patrick Delaney, an Anglican cleric and a close friend of Jonathan Swift. After their marriage in 1743 the Delanys lived on an estate in Ireland, but continued to make frequent trips to London and visits to the court.

Mary Delany, A Seat in Wood Island at Holly-Mount, 1745
Pen and ink and wash over graphite
National Gallery of Ireland

After her husband’s death in 1768, Delany spent her summers at Bulstrode, the estate of the Duchess of Portland. At Bulstrode, the Duchess—who introduced Mrs. Delany to George III and Queen Charlotte—had a vast, renowned and well-curated natural history collection.

Mary Delany, Fort St. Davids Bull, 1755
(drawn from the life by Mrs. Delany at Bulstrode)
Ink on paper, private collection

The Duchess employed entomologists, botanists and ornithologists and the estate housed a zoo, aviary and botanical garden. At Bulstrode Mrs. Delany was exposed to the work of respected and cutting-edge botanists employing the Linnaean method, and her observations and studies there helped provide her with the thorough botanical knowledge displayed  in her intricate collages.

Mary Delany, Horse Chestnut, 1776
Collage of colored papers with watercolor
British Museum

Mary Delany, Passiflora Laurifolia (detail), 1777

To read more about Mrs. Delany, Venetian Red recommends Mrs. Delany & Her Circle, edited by Mark Laird & Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, published to accompany the exhibition of the same name that originated at Sir John Soane’s Museum and may now be viewed at the Yale Center for British Art until January 3, 2010.

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11 Responses to “Flora Delanica: Art and Botany in Mrs. Delany’s “paper mosaicks””

  1. I loved this book as much as the idea of this book. That a woman in her time could have so many interests and that they all converged into her paper flowers at the young age of 72. And we thought Julia Child was bold to start cooking after 40!

  2. Ron Farnham Says:

    I Study the Georgian and Regency and keep bumping into Mrs Delaney.thanks for the very interesting site,and I’ll definitely be obtaining the book and also the one on Mrs Delaney and her Circle.

  3. Nice selection of images by Mrs. Delaney. She was amazing.

  4. I’m reading “The Paper Garden” and am fascinated by Mary Delaney. I’m going to London soon and look forward to seeing her Flora Delanica at the British Museum.

    • Hello Beth, thank you for adding this note to “Flora Delanica.” I’m curious what your thoughts on “The Paper Garden” were. I think other readers would benefit from your perspective.

  5. The Paper garden is a real threat !; Not only is the book itself a pleasure to handle, the illustrations superb, and the content well researched. If you are in any way interested in crafts, do put it on your christmas list !

  6. L. Marilyn McGrath Says:

    Having received a book store gift certificate this Christmas, and while browsing last week, I was approached by a wonderful lady whom I had met a few years prior. After a wonderful chat and leaving without a book she stopped me and said you must see this book I just purchased, The Paper Garden. I was totally mesmerized! My husband and I returned to the bookstore last night and purchased the book, lucky for us there was one hardbound copy on the shelf. This is one of the most beautiful Christmas present ever and I am truly in debt to the wonderful lady who introduced me to this book. Thank you everyone!!!…Marilyn McIsaac-McGrath

  7. Mrs Mavis Allen Says:

    beautiful I would never have known this artist if my friend from Buffalow had not sent me her biography

  8. Suzanne Dooley Says:

    I first learned about Mary Delaney while listening to NPR. Her work is enthralling. I can only imagine the patience and perseverance it took to accomplish these pieces of art. The embroidery is especially intriguing. Thank you.

  9. I had the pleasure of donning white gloves in the library section of the British Museum and being allowed to go through Mary Delany’s work, seeing the cut pieces that form her flowers, every detail. As a botanical artist, this was such a thrill.

  10. Donetta Merenda Says:

    The horse chestnut is useful to traditional prevent rheumatism, arthritis and the management of hemorrhoids and varicose. It prevents the breakdown of collagen by inhibiting glycosaminoglycan hydrolases.Its seeds are very toxic but, there have been several methods that can remove this toxicity. This herb is popularly utilized in Europe.It is very useful in treating the insufficiency of chronic venus, veins, tension, varicose, tiredness, leg pain, edema and swelling. Its extract is helpful in the conjunctive treatment for hemorrhoids, lymphedema and prostrate enlargement. –

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