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