There are several prettinesses I can’t explain to you — little wild walks, private seats, and lovely prospects…

- Mary Delany, in Mrs. Delany and Her Flower Collages

According to her biographers, Mary Delany has two main claims to fame (apart from having been friends with Handel). (1) She made hundreds of collages of flowers so beautiful that the King and Queen of England sought her out and befriended her. And (2) she was 72 when she started making them.

Actually Delany was crafty her whole life - cutting out silhouettes and embroidering impressive gowns from a young age - but it wasn't until she was widowed for a second time, left with nothing but time and friends and just a little money on her hands, that her creative output achieved such magnificence. 

British Museum collection online. Rosa Gallica (Icosandria Polygynia), from an album (Vol.VIII, 39); Moss Provence rose. 1775 Collage of coloured papers, with bodycolour and watercolour, on black ink background.

British Museum collection online. Veronica Verna, from an album (Vol.IX, 79); Vernal Speedwell. 1780 Collage of coloured papers, with bodycolour and watercolour, and with leaf sample, on black ink background. There is a real leaf in there!!! 

British Museum collection online. Veronica Verna, from an album (Vol.IX, 79); Vernal Speedwell. 1780 Collage of coloured papers, with bodycolour and watercolour, and with leaf sample, on black ink background. There is a real leaf in there!!! 

As a true American and a bit of a Francophile myself, I know so very little about British art (and culture, and music, and language…) but I can say I’ve spent hours poring over the British Museum’s digitized collection of Mrs. Delany’s 18th-century English garden, her personal version of the Hortus Siccus her contemporaries made.* And when it's rainy or there's no convenient garden nearby, I must recommend that you spend an afternoon that way, too. 

Our garden is now a wilderness of sweets. The violets, sweet briar, and primroses perfume the air, and the thrushes are full of melody and make our concert complete.

- Mary Delany, in Mrs. Delany and Her Flower Collages

Pressed onto deep black backgrounds, each of Mrs. Delany’s pretty flowers - there are nearly 1000 online at the British Museum - takes on a seriousness that reminds me of the reason short-lived roses lend themselves so well to poems. Her flowers are totally enchanting.

Mrs. Delany captures so sweetly the twist of leaves and the brightness of tasty weeds in snips of paper she painted and snipped and pasted herself. It’s as if she translated her lifetime of loving  garden observations, for each small thing they contained, to their sweetest possible resting place: an irregular leaf of paper, painted black.

In the spring and summer of life we flutter and bask in the sunshine of diversions — it is true we run the hazard of being tamed and seldom escape it; in the autumn and the winter of life we by degrees seek for shade and shelter, and if we have made a good and prudent gathering of fruit and harvest, we may then have the full enjoyment of them, as long as the great Author and Giver thinks fit... 

- Mary Delany, in Mrs. Delany and Her Flower Collages

British Museum Highlights. Passiflora laurifolia: bay leaved, a paper collage with over 230 paper petals in the bloom...

British Museum HighlightsPassiflora laurifolia: bay leaved, a paper collage with over 230 paper petals in the bloom...

*Her collation of her flowers into a bound volume was a very fabulous spin on the then-common practice of collecting pressed dried flowers into books that served as keepsakes; Herbals today are typically collections of descriptions of plants, sometimes for medicinal purposes. Please, someone, publish a book replica of Mary Delany’s hortus

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