In Part 1, we left Mary waffling.
Patrick Delany, a man she adored but hadn’t seen in 10 years, had just asked her to marry him. Mary was 43 and had been a widow for two decades, not for lack of proposals.
Her first marriage at 17, to a gross old drunk she called “my jailor,” left her scarred and scared.
“I can endure even suspense for you,” Patrick entreated her, “though I would not endure it for anything this earth calls honor: the hope of the alliance is of a higher species.”
What was he on about?
Patrick was a commoner and Mary’s family was upper class. She still thought she needed their approval.
Patrick requested it from her mother and older brother. Her titled brother balked.
Finally, Patrick wrote to Mary,
…let not the decision depend upon the fickle, the uncertain, the selfish.
Mary turned 43 the next day. And perhaps for the first time in her life, she ignored her family and plucked happiness by the stem. Three weeks later, she and Patrick married.
A Grand Passion
They redesigned his garden estate in Dublin together — their grand passion. With Patrick’s encouragement, Mary became a first-rate artist. He formally commissioned her to decorate the estate’s chapel with religious motifs from the masters.
“The Transfiguration [from Raphael] is the sweetest picture I ever saw…” he wrote Mary’s sister.
I wish their time had been deliriously happy, but no. Patrick’s former in-laws harassed him almost to bankruptcy, seeking to reclaim marital property. The lawsuit settled in his favor, but the harassment continued.
Patrick’s health began to fail. He died at age 85 after a long illness. Despite the hardships, Patrick and Mary never lost faith in or affection for each other. They had 25 creative years together.
A Cosmos of Her Own
At age 68, Mary again had only her friendships and talent to support her.
She had met Margaret Cavendish when Margaret was a precocious 8-year-old. Both loved botany and zoology.
Mary cultivated Margaret’s passions for art and science from girlhood on. And in Mary’s greatest hour of need, that little girl, now Dowager Duchess of Portland and the richest woman in England, offered her a home.
And not just any home. The Duchess’s estate was nicknamed “The Hive” for the artists and scientists in residence who helped Margaret catalog her collections — botanists, ornithologists, conchologists, and entomologists. (I had to look up conchology — “the scientific or amateur study of mollusk shells.”)
Mary’s biographer, Molly Peacock, describes the Duchess thus:
For this woman creative life was not a question of having a room of her own, but a cosmos of her own.
The buzzing of The Hive helped nudge Mary from mourning.
One day, Mary noticed a scarlet geranium petal against her ebony table and a piece of paper exactly the same color. When the Duchess checked in, she thought Mary had dissected the poor geranium.
Mary looked up. “I have invented a new way of imitating flowers,” she said. And so her life work began, at age 72.
Mary’s works used background paper washed with india ink, then treated with size to make them shiny. She dyed the collage bits herself or found wallpaper remnants. Remember these pictures are really mosaics.
Gardeners and amateur botanists from miles around sent her flowers so she could record their achievements for posterity.
I find the utter curiosity and wonder that defines Mary and her circle most poignant. The intersection of art and collecting — shells, rocks, fossils, flowers — was not just a hobby, but a calling. It’s something we all enjoy as children then dismiss as childish when grown.
Luckily for Mary, that wasn’t true 230 years ago.
A Twist of Fate
The astonishing Margaret, Duchess of Portland, died suddenly at age 70, probably from small pox. Mary was now 85, devastated, and again, homeless.
But Mary’s flower collages caught the interest of two neighboring amateur botanists and honorary Hive members — King George III and his wife, Queen Charlotte.
They gave her a cottage at Windsor where she lived out her last three years, surrounded by her great-niece Georgina, age 17 (whom she’d raised) and many of the King and Queen’s thirteen children, to whom she taught botany.
In a wonderful twist of fate, King George III, the grandson of George I, the man who inadvertently caused her family’s downfall, took care of Mary in the end.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this story of a talented artist who discovered her unparalleled life’s work at age 72.
I wanted to publish earlier today, but I created a little slideshow of Mary’s work for you (my first), just one minute long set to the music of her friend, George Frideric Handel.
What would you like to begin at 72?
The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life Work at 72 by Molly Peacock. Gratitude to Lorne Daniel and Lisa Firke for calling Mary to my attention.