Scribe, a publishing house based in Melbourne, has recently offered the reading public one of the best arguments against the ebook that I have seen all year, in its exquisite hard-covered edition of The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life Work At 72 by Molly Peacock.
Mrs Delany began her life in 1700 as Mary Granville. She was trained by an aunt for service as a Lady-in-Waiting at the Georgian court, but never managed to achieve this position. Instead, she was married off to Squire Pendarves by an unscrupulous uncle when she was 17 years old. He was 61, desperately unattractive, and a drunk. He did have the decency to die about 8 years later, however, and though Mary was not bequeathed his substantial estate, she was in no hurry to marry again. But she did take an active interest in the world around her — especially the art world — cultivating the friendships of such luminaries of her time as George Frederick Handel, William Hogarth, and Jonathan Swifte.
It was Swifte’s friend, Dean Patrick Delany, who wooed and wed her when she was in her early forties. This was the second marriage for both of them and a great success, and, at the Dean’s demise when Mary was 68, she was bereft.
Four years later, incapacitated by an insect sting to her foot, Mary Delany began what became her life’s work, an exquisite garden of paper flowers cut out and mounted on a dark background, all 985 of them. She was 72. These gorgeous creations have been preserved by the British Museum. Some of them appear in this book.
Molly Peacock, a poet, is clearly fascinated by Mrs Delany’s artistic impulses, drawing comparisons with these and aspects of both their lives. She also probes the nature of art, seeing Delaney’s as a way of chronicling an extraordinary life.
This book is a treasure for many reasons. It is beautiful with its glossy paper and startling examples of the paper artist’s work… in fact “The Paper Garden” is itself is a work of art. It is an unusual biography because not only does it include the author in the story, it implies parallels in the author’s and subject’s lives. This is sometimes disconcerting, but the biography contains such a delightful cast of real characters from the eighteenth century and a pleasing reconstruction of those times, we can allow what sometimes seems idiosyncratic in its assemblage. And most satisfying, it is a meditation on art, and the ability of a remarkable woman to live her art into very old age. Nice one, Scribe.