Behold 900+ Magnificent Botanical Collages Created by a 72-Year-Old Widow, Starting in 1772

“I have invent­ed a new way of imi­tat­ing flow­ers,” Mary Delany, a 72-year-old wid­ow wrote to her niece in 1772 from the grand home where she was a fre­quent guest, hav­ing just cap­tured her host­ess’ gera­ni­um’s like­ness, by col­lag­ing cut paper in a near­ly iden­ti­cal shade.

Nov­el­ty rekin­dled the cre­ative fire her husband’s death had damp­ened.

For­mer pur­suits such as needle­work, sil­hou­ette cut outs, and shell dec­o­rat­ing went by the way­side as she ded­i­cat­ed her­self ful­ly to her botan­i­cal-themed “paper mosaicks.”

Over the next decade Mrs. Delany pro­duced 985 aston­ish­ing­ly flo­ral rep­re­sen­ta­tions from metic­u­lous­ly cut, hand col­ored tis­sue, which she glued to hand paint­ed black back­ings, and labeled with the spec­i­mens’ tax­o­nom­ic and com­mon names, as well as a col­lec­tion of num­bers, date and prove­nance.

In the begin­ning, she took inspi­ra­tion from a giant col­lec­tion of botan­i­cal spec­i­mens amassed by the cel­e­brat­ed botanist Sir Joseph Banks, with whom she became acquaint­ed while spend­ing sum­mers at Bul­strode, the Buck­ing­hamshire estate of her friend Mar­garet Bentinck, duchess of Port­land and a fel­low enthu­si­ast of the nat­ur­al world.

Bul­strode also pro­vid­ed her with abun­dant source mate­r­i­al. The estate boast­ed botan­ic, flower, kitchen, ancient and Amer­i­can gar­dens, as well a staff botanist, the Swedish nat­u­ral­ist Daniel Solan­der charged with cat­a­logu­ing their con­tents accord­ing to the Lin­naean sys­tem.

Sir Joseph Banks com­mend­ed Mrs. Delany’s pow­ers of obser­va­tion, declar­ing her assem­blages “the only imi­ta­tions of nature” from which he “could ven­ture to describe botan­i­cal­ly any plant with­out the least fear of com­mit­ting an error.”

They also suc­ceed as art.

Mol­ly Pea­cock, author of The Paper Gar­den: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, appears quite over­come by Mrs. Delany’s Pas­si­flo­ra lau­ri­fo­lia — more com­mon­ly known as water lemon, Jamaican hon­ey­suck­le or vine­gar pear:

The main flower head … is so intense­ly pub­lic that it’s as if you’ve come upon a nude stody. She splays out approx­i­mate­ly 230 shock­ing­ly vul­vu­lar pur­plish pink petals in the bloom, and inside the leaves she places the slen­der­est of ivory veins also cut sep­a­rate­ly from paper, with vine ten­drils fin­er that a girl’s hair. It is so fresh that it looks wet and full of desire, yet the Pas­si­flo­ra is dull and mat­te

Mrs. Delany’s exquis­ite­ly ren­dered paper flow­ers became high soci­ety sen­sa­tions, fetch­ing her no small amount of invi­ta­tions from titled hosts and host­esses, clam­or­ing for spec­i­mens from their gar­dens to be immor­tal­ized in her grow­ing Flo­ra Delan­i­ca.

She also received dona­tions of exot­ic plants at Bal­strode, where green­hous­es kept non-native plants alive, as she glee­ful­ly informed her niece in a 1777 let­ter, short­ly after com­plet­ing her work:

I am so plen­ti­ful­ly sup­plied with the hot­house here, and from the Queen’s gar­den at Kew, that nat­ur­al plants have been a good deal laid aside this year for for­eign­ers, but not less in favour. O! How I long to show you the progress I have made. 

Her work was in such demand, that she stream­lined her cre­ation process from neces­si­ty, col­or­ing paper in batch­es, and work­ing on sev­er­al pieces simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.

Her fail­ing eye­sight forced her to stop just shy of her goal of one thou­sand flow­ers.

She ded­i­cat­ed the ten vol­umes of Flo­ra Delan­i­ca to her friend, the duchess of Port­land, mis­tress of Bal­strode “(whose) appro­ba­tion was such a sanc­tion to my under­tak­ing, as made it appear of con­se­quence and gave me courage to go on with con­fi­dence.”

She also reflect­ed on the great under­tak­ing of her sev­enth decade in a poem:

        Hail to the hap­py hour! When fan­cy led

My pen­sive mind this flow’ry path to tread;

And gave me emu­la­tion to pre­sume

With timid art to trace fair Nature’s bloom.

Explore The British Museum’s inter­ac­tive archive of Mary Delany’s botan­i­cal paper col­lages here.

All images © The Trustees of the British Muse­um, repub­lished under a Cre­ative Com­mons license.

via Colos­sal

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Two Mil­lion Won­drous Nature Illus­tra­tions Put Online by The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library

Dis­cov­er Emi­ly Dickinson’s Herbar­i­um: A Beau­ti­ful Dig­i­tal Edi­tion of the Poet’s Col­lec­tion of Pressed Plants & Flow­ers Is Now Online

The New Herbal: A Mas­ter­piece of Renais­sance Botan­i­cal Illus­tra­tions Gets Repub­lished in a Beau­ti­ful 900-Page Book by Taschen

His­toric Man­u­script Filled with Beau­ti­ful Illus­tra­tions of Cuban Flow­ers & Plants Is Now Online (1826)

A Beau­ti­ful 1897 Illus­trat­ed Book Shows How Flow­ers Become Art Nou­veau Designs

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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