An ingenious mind is never too old to learn. ~Mary Granville Delany
Let me introduce you to this spectacular alien.
It’s called pancratium maritimum, sea daffodil. It grows on beaches along the Mediterranean.
Examine the the stamen antennae, fluid white petals, deep blue shadow on the rear leaf. (Look here if you want extreme detail.)
How was it created? Oil, pastel, water color? And when? Is it a modern interpretation?
It’s a collage, sliced with a razor from colored paper. Each stamen, shadow, and gradation represents a separate layer. A woman nearing age 80 created it.
And it’s dated 1778, not long after her patron King George III lost thirteen troublesome colonies.
Like Grandma Moses, Mary Granville Delany (1700-1788) bloomed in her 70s, when she embarked on her life’s work — creating 985 life-size, three-dimensional, scientifically-correct botanical prints now held by the British Museum.
Some consider her the first mixed media collage artist because she used paint, paper, and parts of flowers. Nothing like it had been seen before.
And nothing like it has been seen since.
The Persephone Years
Mary was born to Bernard Granville, the third son of a family who backed the wrong claimant in England’s skirmishes of succession. In 1701, Parliament declared a Catholic could not be monarch, yet the Granvilles supported James Stuart, the Scottish Catholic nearest the throne.
Parliament, however, plucked Georg Ludwig of Hanover, about fiftieth in line but a Protestant, to rule as George I of England.
So instead of a Jane Austen-style fairy tale wedding, Mary got thrown into a Gothic novel.
At age 17, she found herself wed (against her will, not that it mattered then), to Alexander Pendarves, a drooling drunk 45 years her senior with a decrepit castle in Cornwall.
She called her new home “Averno,” after the Roman lake thought to be Hades’ entrance. Later she wrote,
…when I was led to the altar, I wished from my soul, I had been led, as Iphigenia was, to be sacrificed. I was sacrificed.
(King Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia so the gods would release the winds and carry him to Troy.)
Seven dark years passed, punctuated by long nights when Mary read to her husband in the frozen cavern of his bedchamber, because he couldn’t bear heat during his gout attacks…“I have read three hours together to him, trembling all the time.”
And then one morning, she found him at her side, “quite black in the face. At first I thought him in a fit, but immediately it struck me he was dead.”
Twenty Years of Spring
Mary was 23 years old. But her husband had neglected to change his will and his niece inherited the estate. Mary got a small widow’s stipend.
It was enough. A high-born, low-income widow in 18th c. England became a perpetual house guest, and Mary was much sought after. She’d been trained as a lady-in-waiting before her family’s downfall. She could draw, do needlework, speak French, play harpsichord (and had taken lessons from Handel).
Her dress ideas were so unique, she essentially earned her keep as a fashion designer through her 20s. She created the piece at left, a black satin overskirt with embroidered wildflowers, which echoes her later work.
Although not conventionally pretty, she received several marriage proposals — one (confirmed) from Lord Baltimore, dubbed “The American Prince” since he inherited the governorship of Maryland at age 15, and one (unconfirmed) from John Wesley, future founder of Methodism.
But Mary clung to her small pension and her independence, a testament to the nightmare her marriage had been. At age 33, she traveled to Dublin with her friend Ann and Ann’s brother.
They met Patrick Delany, a Church of Ireland cleric who owned the most beautiful garden in the district. Patrick invited the party to stay a few days with him and his house guest, Jonathan Swift.
Patrick Delany had just become engaged, so both women turned their flirtation to Swift, an irascible celebrity. And yet, under the cloak of unavailability, Patrick and Mary became friends, drawn by their common interests in art and gardening. Mary said,
“…the excellence of his heart, his humanity, benevolence, charity and generosity, his tenderness, affection and friendly zeal, gave me a higher opinion of him than of any other man…”
Patrick Delany married. Mary returned to England and continued her rounds. Her sister wed and birthed four children in as many years, so nieces and nephews brought new joy and purpose. The years passed.
Mary kept in touch with Jonathan Swift. “I beg my compliments to all friends that remember me,” she wrote him, “but particularly to Dr. Delany.”
And then, ten years later, she received a letter from Patrick Delany, now a widower:
“As you have seen the vanities of the world to satiety, I allowed myself to indulge a hope that a retirement at this time of life, with…a man who knows your worth, and honours you as much as he is capable of honouring anything that is mortal.”
Patrick proposed marriage. Unbelievably, Mary didn’t answer that gorgeous letter acknowledging her true self.
End of Part I. And on to Part 2!