The Flowering of Mary Delany’s Ingenious Mind, Pt. 2

The Flowering of Mary Delany’s Ingenious Mind, Pt. 2

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.

The Flowering of Mary Delany's Ingenious Mind at Debra Eve's
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Portland

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.

The Flowering of Mary Delany's Ingenious Mind at Debra Eve's
Rosa Gallica by Mary Delany

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.



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25 Responses

  1. K.B. Owen
    | Reply

    Debra, this is fabulous! I love how you wove (or pieced? It is about mosaics, after all, haha) together her story, highlighting the way she must have felt, the ironies, the intersections of fate and choice. Nicely done. I always look forward to your series.

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Kathy! I thought of you while I was writing this. The “widow or spinster as the perpetual house guest” that Mary’s biographer highlighted intrigued me. I know it went on into the 19th century (Jane Austen, for instance), and I wondered if anyone had wrote about it academically. An interesting phenomenon that was both socially responsible and socially restricting.

  2. Mary Jo Gibson
    | Reply

    What a great story Debra! Loved the slideshow with music by Handel. Comparing Mary’s life to a gothic story is an understatement. That fact she stayed true to her own choices in life and moved forward against the odds makes her as unique as her art. Thank you for sharing!

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Mary Jo. It was very unusual for a woman back then to stay single by choice for 20 years as she did. I’m so happy she finally found someone she felt safe with and let her art flourish.

  3. Lindsay
    | Reply

    Mary somehow kept an open mind about pursuing her dreams, both in her personal life and in her vocation. Shows where that can lead! Another beautiful story. I like the slideshow!

    • Debra Eve

      Hah, you’d appreciate my struggle with the technology gods to master that one minute slideshow. But I’m a better person for it now. Thanks, Lindsay!

  4. Daniela
    | Reply

    What a life! I’m inspired by Mary Delaney’s on-going output in the face of such devastating economic uncertainty. How grateful I am to be economically free! Her persistence reminds me of Goethe’s brilliant commentary: “Until one is committed, there is hesitance, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and endless plans: That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in in t. Begin it now.”
    Did you know Mary Delaney’s biographer Molly Peacock is also a respected poet, as well as teacher of writing? Loved the slide show!

    • Debra Eve

      I love that quote by Goethe, Daniela, and too often I just see it truncated to the last two sentences. The full one is worth reading time and again. I didn’t know Molly Peacock was a poet at first, but about 50 pages in, I looked her up, because her use of language was so stunning and unusual for a biographer. When I saw she was a poet, I thought, “Ah, that explains it!”

    • Daniela

      I have read lots of Molly Peacock the poet, but now you’ve inspired me to read Molly Peacock the biographer. Looking forward to another great read on your recommendation. Smiles. And, write on!

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Daniela! Molly tried to weave her own memoir into Mary’s biography and it didn’t always work. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  5. khaula mazhar
    | Reply

    I love your posts, first because they are always so inspiring and second because I always learn about something(someone) new

    • Debra Eve

      Thank you, Khaula. I so appreciate your comments.

  6. florence fois
    | Reply

    Debra, I so enjoyed both posts about Mary. Her story is one of endurance and determination. To find expression at any age, to know at some time before one jumps off the mortal coil that they had a purpose and a bit of immortality … Oh how grand it that?

    What would I like to begin at 72? I would love to begin to see my work realized in print, to leave my own footsteps in the sand of time and know my time here was well spent.

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Florence. I know you will see your dream long before 72!

  7. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    Oh Debra, you can tell that you truly enjoy who you’re writing about. I applaud your efforts in rummaging through history and finding these wonderfully inspiring talented people! And Mary Granville is just one of them. But oh what a life. And that was an amazing video you choreographed! I think some day you will be inducted into your series! 🙂

    • Debra Eve

      That’s so sweet of you, Karen! Would love to be one of my later bloomers. Thank you.

  8. Debra,
    This was a fantastic 2 parter. I’m amazed that this woman lived so long back then. It gives me, a later bloomer, so much hope! I needed this shot in the arm.
    Thank you. Your articles really inspire and uplift us Debra.

    • Debra Eve

      Sorry Angela, you went to spam (have no idea why). Thanks so much for stopping by and appreciating Mary Granville!

  9. Reetta Raitanen
    | Reply

    Awesome second part of Mary’s life. I’m glad to hear she found happiness and artistic freedom with her second husband. And that she had influential people taking care of her in her late years. Mary’s collaging technique sounds really great. And how advanced it was in her era.

    • Debra Eve

      Especially considering the time she lived in, when women had so little freedom. Thanks for stopping by, Reeta!

  10. Sandra Sallin
    | Reply

    Oh my goodness, what a story. What a life. What talent. How fascinating. Truly remarkable work I have never seen. Thank you so much for commenting on my webstie and mentioning this artist. I never would have know about her. How in the world did you learn about her. Again, what a story.

    • Debra Eve

      Glad you enjoyed it, Sandra. Some of your flowers reminded me of her, although your styles and materials are completely different, of course. The book “The Paper Garden” (which I use here) reached #1 on a Canadian bestseller list. A few Canadians called my attention to it 🙂

  11. Roy Sinclair
    | Reply

    Do you have any information on any Communication between Mary Granville and Dr. Jonathan Stokes of Chesterfield. The communication was about a medicine and Jonathan Stokes was closely involved with William Withering and especially in discovering / proving the effects Foxgloves in Dropsy (i.e. Digitalis). Withering claims his knowledge stemmed from use of a local remedy ? I have seen the communication mentioned in a letter to from Mary to a Mrs Stokes dated 1786 but it does not say what the medicine recommended was ?

  12. Pamela Richardson
    | Reply

    Thank you for sharing Mary’s story! I started researching more about her after watching Lucy Worsley’s ‘A Very British Romance’ and wanted to learn more about her life. Such an inspiration about overcoming and thriving despite the many obstacles that were thrown in her way.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve

      Wish we got all those great British documentaries over here, Pamela! Love them. I highly recommend the biography I used as source material for this. I think you’d enjoy it. I recently saw a good photo of one of her pieces. The detail was unbelievable. She used tiny pieces of paper. An astonishing woman. Thanks for stopping by!

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