“A life’s work is always unfinished and requires creativity till the day a person dies.”
So says Molly Peacock the author of the biography The Paper Garden which tells the story of Mary Delany who at age 72 invented a new art form–mixed media collage and in the next decade created nearly a thousand botanically correct beautifully cut paper flowers.
Mary who was friends with King George and Queen Charlotte, composer George Frederic Handel, painter William Hogarth and writer Jonathan Swift did not have a happy start to life. Her family in need of finances and political influence arranged a marriage for her at age 17 to a 60-year-old overweight, drunkard with gambling tendencies and health problems.
Her husband died when she was still young and she was able to marry again, this time an Irish clergyman she adored. The two of them designed and tended beautiful gardens at their home near Dublin. ” The secret of a good marriage is thinking your partner is better than yourself”, says author Molly Peacock reflecting on Mary’s two husbands
When her second husband died Mary began making flower mosaics as a way to deal with her grief. Her flowers are exceptional because of their detail. Each chapter of Molly Peacock’s book begins with a full-page flower illustration. Molly has carefully picked the flowers so they correspond with the period of Mary’s life that is described in that chapter.
In each chapter as well Molly tells us a little bit about her own life and how it relates to Mary’s life and to the flower that has been chosen for that chapter. She has “cut the silhouette of another’s existence and placed it against her own.” Besides learning about Mary’s life and Molly’s life we also learn about the life of Ruth Hayden, Mary’s first biographer who published a book about Mary and her flowers in 1980.
We know so much about Mary’s life because she wrote hundreds of letters to her sister Anne, who saved them all. A descendant of Anne’s published the letters and they sparked lots of interest in Mary’s life and work.
Molly Peacock’s book is full of exquisite descriptions and many phrases that really get you thinking.
“Compliments aren’t superficial. They are the foundation for recognizing what we are in life.”
” People who seem to spring into artistic action were in fact, quietly preparing for years.”
“Thankfulness and forgiveness are what Christianity is for.”
“You must have technical skill to create art, but you must also have passion, which is, in an odd way, technique forgotten.”
“We make art out of the substance of our lives.”
“To save things one must value things. To throw things away one must value moving on.”
Molly Peacock says Mary encourages us to look for artists of the everyday– grocers who arrange their produce in attractive and colorful ways- people who dress in an interesting and artistic style–even people who hang out their laundry in a definite pattern or order.
My friend Esther recommended The Paper Garden to me and I throughly enjoyed it ! I rationed myself to read only one chapter a day so I could savor the beauty of the words, the flowers and the ideas in that chapter.
I think the main reason I liked this book so much is its subtitle which reads Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72. It made me think that there are still things I can achieve and learn since I’m more than a decade younger than Mary Delany was when she began her life’s work. Two of my favorite quotes from the book reflect this……….
“How can people say we grow indifferent as we grow older? It is just the reverse.”
“Some things take living long enough to do. “