The Paper Garden
Molly Peacock
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Buy *The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life's Work at 72* by Molly Peacock online

The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life's Work at 72
Molly Peacock
Bloomsbury USA
416 pages
April 2011
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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When a poet writes a book about an artist, the result is a collectible treasure. That’s what we have here with The Paper Garden, subtitled "An Artist Begins Her Life Work at 72." Not only does the theme immediately inspire, but it will keep on producing creative ideas in anyone who reads it, at whatever age.

The subject of The Paper Garden is Englishwoman Mary Granville Pendarves Delaney (1700-1788), a contemporary of Handel and Jonathan Swift and a favorite of George III and Queen Charlotte. Late in what had been a vigorous life and 16 years before her death, she took up a new hobby, new to her and new to the world. She created breathtakingly lifelike flower pictures by pasting colored paper pieces on a black background. It was a feminine art, which she termed “mosaicks” – and she created 985 examples that are still prized for their botanical correctness. A dedicated letter-writer, she kept an epistolary collage of her life that poet Molly Peacock has drawn on to tell her story.

Daughter of gentry, Mary had dreams of becoming a well-married lady, but her hopes of a life of ease with someone she cared for were dashed when at age 17, her family sold her off to a man of 60, Alexander Pendarves, a drunkard with property seeking an heir for his estate. Peacock’s story of Mary’s adventures is painted by her own strong imagination of how a teenage girl might feel when forced to live with and have sex with a much older man (“forced” being the operant concept). It was a state that Mary later would describe as “an irksome prison.” Fortunately, this painful arrangement ended with Pendarves’ death nine years later, but unfortunately, he had not changed his will in favor of his wife, so she was set loose upon society as a respectable but financially cramped young widow. Fortunately, widows could move freely and enjoy a variety of companionships, and this Mary did. And fortuitously, she had been taught the art of drawing flowers, an art that was to flower forth in later years, after her second widowhood.

Her second marriage was a love match to Dean Patrick Delaney, a pal of Dean Swift, whom she met in Ireland. This type of matrimony she characterized as “that happy union of hearts where mutual choice and mutual obligation make it the most perfect state of friendship.”

Peacock jumps between Mary’s life story and events of the present, to people and places who are connected in some way with Mary, such as the church where her husband, as it turned out, didn’t preach, and the museums where her work is housed. At times these connections seem strained, but the general good is served because Peacock has warmed to her task and is not, as suggested by someone, a biographer who has come to hate her subject. She has brought Mary Granville Pendarves Delaney to life, especially with the flower “mosaicks” that grace each chapter, and two portraits of Mary, one at forty and one in old age.

Peacock draws parallels between Mary’s drawings and events of Mary’s life, one such being to note that Mary’s rose has a sharp little hole in one leaf. The rose is a symbol for virginity, the artist’s planned imperfection perhaps a clue to how the young Mary felt when her purity was bartered off for family gain. As Peacock says so eloquently, “Once you notice the nibble in the leaf, you cannot see the rose in the same way again. It becomes a rose with a story, a bitten bloom.” Thanks to Peacock, we see that there are stories in all of Delaney’s flowers.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2011

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