Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Guest post from Molly Peacock

I adored The Paper Garden.  For anyone who enjoys history, art, the creative process, and well-crafted biographies, this is a book for you.  I'm thrilled to offer a guest post by the author, Molly Peacock, on her and Mrs. Delaney.  Enjoy!

A Bouquet for Mrs. Delany by Molly Peacock

I first saw Mary Delany’s amazing cut-paper botanical collages seventeen years before I even dreamed of writing about them.  There they were, one hundred of them, carefully transported across the Atlantic Ocean from London to New York City, to hang in an exhibit at the Morgan Library. 

Each spectacular flower is composed of hundreds of dots, squiggles and half-moons of brilliantly colored paper, all assembled on dramatic black backgrounds—and amazingly well-preserved from when she began them in 1772.  Some of these beauties have actual botanical material, leaves and seed casings, pasted onto them, and these leaves have lasted for over two centuries.

Here’s something even more incredible: Mrs. Delany was 72 years old when she invented this new visual art. 

And another astounding fact:  she completed 985 of them in just ten years.

We all need our role models, and Delany became one for me. Here’s her Canada Lily (Lilium canadense), which she completed in 1779.  (If you want to see the other images in the book and watch a brief video, please go to These images are used by permission of The British Museum.)

How on earth did she do it:  how can someone invent a brand new art form at an advanced age?  What happened in her life earlier?  Gradually, I began to find out.  Here’s a close-up of one of the lilies, just so you can see that it’s not a painted image, but composed of many pieces of paper, all gradually built up in layers.

Speaking of gradual, I seemed to be having one of those lives that start in darkness and get clearer and clearer.  It wasn’t until I was forty-four that I managed to get it right:  I married my high school boyfriend and moved to Canada. We visited England in 2003, seventeen years after I saw my first Delany collages, and I began to learn about her life.

Also at the age of forty-four, she decamped from London and moved to Dublin to marry Patrick Delany, Jonathan Swift’s friend, beginning a marvelously happy second marriage. That parallel in our lives prompted a tendril of a thought in me about writing a book about her.

What if I was able to take a dozen of her images and let each one be a threshold into her life? 

A Damask rose for the period in her life when her evil uncle forced her to marry a man her grandfather’s age when she was only seventeen (and a blushing English rose).  A poppy for her intoxicating adventures as a young widow and friend of Handel, dinner partner of Jonathan Swift, receiver of painting tips from William Hogarth.  A sweet pea for the vine of her relationship with her younger sister.  A huge white Portlandia flower for her relationship with her life-long friend.

Why study someone else’s life? Because the tracing the patterns in another life illuminate your own. But the patterns are as complicated as the whorls in flowers.

Ruth Hayden, Mrs. Delany’s great-great-great-great-great-great niece, fed me tea and cookies and told me more about the life of her ancestor.  Now Ruth’s story came into the book I was writing.  Ruth was about the age my mother would have been, had she still been alive.  So my mother, who died at the very age that Mrs. Delany began her great work, came into the story.  Then bits and pieces of my own life poked through, just like the extra material Mrs. D. used when she created her Flora Delanica, now housed in the British Museum.

At last I realized that I was making a kind of a collage biography. The Paper Garden:  An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 became my bouquet for Mrs. Delany.

*** *** ****

My thanks to Ms. Peacock for her time and this wonderful entry.  Learn more about Molly Peacock at her website, and see the lovely video for her book at  For more reviews, check out the other blogs on the blog tour.

GIVEAWAY!  Enter to win a copy of this magnificent book by commenting on this guest post.  Don't forget to leave your email address.  Open to US/CA readers, closes 5/13.  You can comment on my review for another entry.


  1. Wow. What a fascinating art form; I had no idea how intricate the paper collages were. I love hearing the story behind how the book got started. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Awesome guest post -- totally new to me author and subject! I wouldn't normally say I'm into crafts but this has me pretty curious! Thanks for the giveaway!

    bravenewgirl at

  3. These flowers are beautiful and it's amazing to know how Mary Delaney created them. I am also fascinated that she came up with the idea and process at an age when many people are retiring from their work!

    My favorite line in this wonderful guest post is Molly Peacock's explanation about why study someone else's life? "Because the tracing the patterns in another life illuminate your own." We can learn so much about ourselves from learning about and understanding another person. But I agree with Molly that the patterns are complicated. It takes time, patience, focus and care to come to understand someone else and then for that understanding to illuminate ourselves.

    I am very excited to read Molly Peacock's book! Thank you for this great gueat post!
    Because the tracing the patterns in another life illuminate your own.

  4. @Amy: Molly Peacock is a poet and so this whole book is fully of gorgeous, lovely lines that are so quotable. My copy has about fifty tabs where I noted lines I wanted to reread/savor. This book is such a treat for so many reasons, including the writing.

  5. Lovely post. so wonderful to hear back stories of stories.
    audra, you make this book sound so visually delicious! i want it!
    vvb32 at

  6. Thank you for an interesting post. Don't count me in though as I am overseas.

  7. Very beautiful flowers, can't wait to check this book out