"How can people say we grow indifferent as we grow old? It is just the reverse . . . "
~Mary Delany to her sister Anne Dewes, Dublin, 1750
The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life's Work at 72 by Molly Peacock is an impressionistic portrait of a woman who was truly ahead of her time. Married at the age of 17 to a much older man, Mary Delany (nee Granville) became a widow at a young age and remained unmarried for many years, in spite of having several suitors, and in spite of the times, in which women were expected to marry. She did not marry again until she was forty-three, and this time, she married because she was seeking a true companion, and she found one, in Patrick Delany, who had a beautiful garden.
Poet and author Molly Peacock traces Mary Delany's late-blooming (pun intended) career as an artist in part to her second husband's garden, where she observed the forms of flowers, and refined her sense of aesthetics. Mary Delany developed great powers of observation, and an unwillingness to compromise in important matters, such as marriage. Although I don't see flowers or pictures of flowers as particularly sexual, the author draws some connections in The Paper Garden. (When I see flowers, I see beauty and color and grace; I don't see their forms as having much to do with sex or genitalia, although a garden could be a lovely, secluded spot for love-making.) However, she presents her ideas well throughout the book, and I truly enjoyed it. I was cast back in time to England in the 1700s, and saw this artist as her life unfolded, as she matured and bloomed and began her collage work (after Patrick's death), with incredible precision, delicacy, and tenacity, which could only have been achieved with a sharp eye, nimble fingers, and the type of incandescent mind Virginia Woolf spoke of (a mind unfettered by constraining conventions, and instead lit by an unwavering inner light). If I'm fortunate enough to have a long life, I hope to possess the ability to begin creative work late in life, and to create well into my old age.
I languished over both the narrative and pictures of her exquisite work in this book. (I'm certain this book would be nothing short of spectacular in hard cover, a beautiful "coffee table" book to linger with.) The author attempts to reveal what it takes to begin a career in art at an advanced age, or at least provides the background of Mary Delany, often called "Mrs D." in the book. Molly Peacock added bits of her own life into the book, so it forms a collage of thoughts, recollections, and ideas, centering around a bounty of biographical information about the artist.
I do think that Mary Delany's ability to create this art (which stemmed from decoupage, but which was a new art), especially at an advanced age (with diminishing eyesight and limited light), in the era she lived, is nothing short of remarkable, and also inspiring. After her second husband died, she began working on these collages, and created nearly 1000 of them. She was quite prolific, becoming more proficient as time went on. The author shows that much in Mary's life contributed to the creation of these flower mosaicks: her awful first marriage, her time to herself after she became a widow, her second, happy marriage (which featured a lovely garden), as well as her bright personality and need to connect with others (she was an avid letter writer, and had many friends). The author also emphasizes that the creative life is of paramount importance, and an expression of our own innate joy.
Wonderful news! Originally published in Canada in 2010, Bloomsbury is celebrating the 2012 release of the paperback version of this book by offering a copy of The Paper Garden as a giveaway (U.S./Canada only) to a lucky reader.
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Enter by 5PM PDT on Monday, June 4. One lucky winner will be randomly selected and announced on Tuesday, June 5. Good luck!
Special thanks to Lisa from TLC for sending me this book. For more reviews please visit the other stops on TLC's The Paper Garden book blog tour.
* I've adopted the spelling that's used in the book, which fits as a more artful version.