Monday, April 21, 2014

The Paper Garden: an 18th century artist, and a biographer who gets in the way

The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (2010) is a biography of the 18th century English artist Mary Delany by the American poet Molly Peacock.  Delany’s form was paper collages of flowers, portrayed with a botanist’s attention to detail.  Botanists would send exotic specimens to Delany to “sit” for a portrait.  It was almost a relief to learn that she would at times use a little bit of paint, but every shape and almost every shade of color is cut from paper.  The book is printed on thick, creamy paper designed to show off the numerous images, but nothing can duplicate the texture of the originals.  I would stare at the prints.  Just paper – impossible!

The collages, now owned by the British Museum, would be extraordinary objects under any circumstances.  The book’s subtitle tells the rest of the story.  Delany invented the form at the age of 72, and over the next decade, before her eyesight dimmed, she made 985 flower portraits, individual, innovative, and strangely personal.  Glue, scissors, black ink for the background, and a portfolio of colored paper, and of course a subject, say the winter cherry on the left, which to add to my amazement also incorporates, in the lower right, an actual seed pod skeleton.

Mary Delany’s biography would be of high interest even if she had never made the collages, but the sudden emergence of Delany as a fine and innovative artist puts a frame around her entire life.  How, I want to know, did she get there?

Just the question Molly Peacock asked when she discovered the flowers and conceived of this book.  The biography is organized chronologically, with one of the flowers made to imaginatively connect to the stage of Delany’s life.

Winter Cherry is an analogous name for Mrs. D.’s whole enterprise…  a self-portrait of the artist as a single stalk of a plant, showing her at four of life’s stages: the green lantern of childhood; the fully dressed, bright orange one with slight hip hoops – young womanhood; the lower lantern with part of the dress removed to show the interior of the plant – increasing maturity; and the last lantern, the heart of the aged woman.  The fine ribs of the plant material make the skeleton of the former lantern into something like a rib cage, with the cherry beating inside.  (318-9)

Note the clothing theme; it runs through the whole book.  Some, perhaps much of this is fanciful.  The author is a poet.  She takes some wild leaps.

The wildest is the inclusion at the end of each chapter of her own memoir.  Awkward teen, parents, divorce, first poetry (late, but nowhere as late as 72), happy second marriage.  Some of these episodes have a parallel with her subject’s 18th century life, but obviously not all of them.  Yet Peacock often creates links between her own life and the flower portrait that heads the chapter, sometimes different, even unrelated links.

But artworks let us leap centuries.  Artwork to artwork, hand to hand, time falls away in the presence of the marvelous.  (229)

Well, sometimes.  The metaphor elides the effort, or strain, required.  There is some strain.  The memoiristic parts are always at the end of the chapter, and have their own heading.  They could easily be skipped or skimmed.  Why does the biographer weave her own life in with that of her fascinating subject?

I found the answer in Chapter 11, which is not about Mary Delany but about her great-great-great-great-great-great niece Ruth Hayden, author of Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Flowers (1980), the book that brought Delany’s life and work back to public attention.  Hayden was 58 when she completed the book.  Her formal education had ended when she was twelve.  Here, then, is another woman finding her “life’s work” at a late age.  Her story is not as remarkable as that of her distant aunt’s, but whose is?

How we have three women who took up significant creative and intellectual work at an unusually late age.  By pursuing a poetical conceit, Peacock is making an argument about the nature of creativity.  Some kinds of creativity, at least; her own, Hayden’s, and Delany’s. 

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.  (5)

Peacock describes her book as “a narrative collage in response to her visual collages” and makes clear that she did not set out to make a particular argument but rather discovered it along the way – “unconsciously Mrs. Delany’s invention of collage would seep into my own writing process.”  I am quoting from a letter Peacock sent to the book blog Alison’s Book Marks.  Is that not cool?

The Paper Garden  is a terrific book.  If Peacock’s autobiography were absent, I would not miss it, but I likely would, then, miss some of the larger meaning that can be taken from Mary Delany’s story.

The book has a website, with lots of links, including to the British Museum collection.

Also, see Rohan Maitzen’s review of the book, the kind of personal response for which the book is made.  Maitzen used the winter cherry, too.  It is irresistible.


  1. Is this a form of insertion that is insinuation? Does it add downstream value to the relatively unknown partner? In any case there appears to be a mini-genre with a mini-me and womany angles. But the collages are wonderful.

  2. In any biography, there is a risk that the biographer is claiming the subject's prestige or virtues or art for himself. Peacock makes that claim explicit, although I think it helps focus the claim to this idea of lifelong creativity. Peacock has her own art and prestige, after all.

    So what I am saying is: good questions.

  3. I agree. Memoir should be memoir, biography, biography.

  4. How many times did I misspell Mary Delany's name? I think I caught them all, now. Let's see how often I botch it in comments.

    Shelley, it seems easy enough to keep them apart, doesn't it? Easier, clearer, less fraught with narcissistic peril.

  5. So possibly The Paper Garden works because it is less about analysing Delany's art, or about telling the life of an individual, than it is about exploring later-life creativity, making use of biography and memoir to that purpose?

    Or am I misinterpreting?

    Or guilty of mincing sophistical fourberie?

    Narcissistic peril sounds like fun. Increases my understanding of why people undertake litbiomemoircriticism.

  6. Yes, that's right. The book primarily works as a biography, diligently keyed to Delany's letters and other primary texts, but this other argument is built along the way.

    Dual use.

    Your last line must be right. Narcissistic peril must cause an endorphin rush.

  7. I read and reviewed this book too, many years ago, but I don't remember feeling sas effusive about it as you do. I admired the cutting of paper as an art form, the extremely intricate and exact replication of the flower, but I don't think I made it all the way through Peacock's diary. It got a bit tedious for me, halfway through...

  8. You might want to compare your memory to written record. Although, to be honest, I would trust the memory.

    I really began to wonder about the autobiography, too, but the Ruth Hayden chapter gave pointed me in the right conceptual direction.

    1. I know! I went back and read my review and was surprised at how glowing it my memory, I didn't hang on to the same impressions.

  9. I'm sorry, I am all but ignoring the point of your post, but what incredible images on the British Museum website. If I make it to London as planned next month, I'll see if I can be among those lucky 20 people per day allowed to view these collages in person.

  10. No, I think that is point #1, of the post and of the book. I would stand in line a while to look at those flowers in person.