Mary Delany (1700-1788), whose work is exhibited in the British Museum, created over 900 paper “mosaicks” of botanicals which she began creating at the age of 72.
In telling her story, Molly Peacock connected certain events of Mary’s life with specific pieces she’d scissored out of paper. For example, when we read of Mary being married to Alexander Pendarves, quite against her will but not her uncle’s, Molly points out the features in the following mosiac:
In the context of the finished collage, the hole is less than a hundredth of the parts, and you might not notice it at first. (Can you see it in the bottom row of the leaves?) It is as round as a bullet hole. Could she have used a paper punch? No, a magnifying glass reveals the hole was hand cut. Is it absurd to put the whole turning episode of a woman’s life into a single composition she made so many years later? It’s no news to anyone that we make art of of the substance of our lives. Still, is the hole that very moment? Better to resort to a simile; the hole is like that moment. George Lansdowne bit into his niece’s life. When she was eighty, she replicated a hole, a cut circle representing an insect bite. Yet a real insect bite, though round, is also jagged. Mrs. Delaney certainly could have cut in a more irregular way. Instead, she made a perfect piercing.
I am fascinated by this book on so many levels. Not only does it tell the true story of an artist, it gives us glimpses into the author’s life as well; it is through their stories that we as readers can piece together meaning for our own lives. Quotes like these were particularly inspiring to me:
Who doesn’t hold out the hope of starting a memorable project at a grand old age? A life’s work is always unfinished and requires creativity till the day a person dies. Even if you’ve managed major accomplishments throughout your life and don’t really need a model for making a mark, you do need one for enriching an ongoing existence.
It’s nearly impossible to see the shape of your life as you are living it, swimming through the bobbing detritus of the everyday. But occasionally huge events scissor your living into a shape, and you feel it sharply. At these moments, lived life takes on the feel of a found novel, as if you were a character in a piece of fiction, your author reaching in to cut you from one section, then paste you into another.
But whatever the composition of the dry crystals she ground with a mortar and pestle, then mixed with liquid and adhesive, its source is something burnt. Carbon. Organic. Ashes. Is being burnt a requisite for the making of art? Personally, I don’t think it is. But art is poultice for a burn. It is a privilege to have, somewhere within you, a capacity for making something speak from your own seared experience.
The Paper Garden is an exquisite book, written by Molly Peacock with as much care and attention to detail as the artist Mary Delany used in creating her mosaics. Both are done on paper. Both are an artistic expression of the lessons they learned through the lives they led. I was thoroughly fascinated by each of them.
Bloomsbury publishers are offering to send a copy to one reader (U.S. or Canada only, please). Simply leave a comment for a chance to win, and I will pull a winner one week from today.
Update: Winner of The Paper Garden is Frances of Nonsuch Book. Congratultions, Frances!