This post is about two women, connected by art.
The first is Mary Delaney. Maybe you’ve never heard of her. I hadn’t – not until I picked up a library copy of The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock, our second subject for today’s post.
Subtitled “An Artist Begins her Life’s Work At The Age Of 72,” Peacock’s book is part biography and part memoir, as the author alternates between relating Delaney’s life story and contemplating how her discovery of Delaney’s life and work impacted the author’s own creative journey as a poet and writer. Both women’s stories are compelling, and both show just how powerful creative work in the second half of life can be.
Mary Delaney may not be a household name these days, but she did move in pretty high society in her time – 18th century England. Delaney grew up as a proper English noblewoman, with an aim towards marrying well. (Think “Pride and Prejudice.”) She did secure an advantageous marriage, except for the fact that she didn’t particularly like her husband, who was four decades her senior. Mary Delaney became a widow at the age of 24. The downside of that situation was that her late husband left her very little by the way of inheritance. The plus side, though, was that with her status as a widow, Delaney had a bit of freedom to move about society without as much pressure to find an advantageous marriage.
That freedom allowed Mary Delaney to marry for love, almost twenty years after the death of her first husband, to Irish clergyman Patrick Delaney. They had a happy marriage of twenty-five years, during which Mary Delaney really began digging into her creative side, designing elaborate country gardens, doing shellwork and needlework, and delving into painting.
When Patrick Delaney died, Mary Delaney was 68 years old and a widow for the second time. As one method to work through her grief, Mrs. Delaney made art. A few years after the death of her beloved, Mary Delaney began focusing on one type of artwork in particular: “paper mosaicks,” which were portraits of flowers made from cut paper. Mary Delaney’s mosaics were highly detailed and botanically accurate, using the tiniest pieces of paper and hand coloring to become authentic representations of their living models. Mrs. Delaney made nearly 1000 of these intricate, cut-paper depictions of plants, all between the age 71 and 88, when her eyesight finally failed her. Mary Delaney later died at the age of 88, leaving an impressive artistic legacy behind.
What is most remarkable about Mary Delaney’s story, I think, is when her “life’s work” really started. Mrs. Delaney spent seven decades being an 18th century English upper-class woman BEFORE she even started making the paper mosaics for which she is rightly remembered today. All of the experiences she had as a child in London, a young bride, a young widow, an older bride, and a widow again all played a part in the beautiful work she created in her 70s and 80s, even without the direct purpose of representing her life experiences in her art.
Molly Peacock really drives this point home in her biography of Mary Delaney, and, in fact, I found Delaney’s story all the more interesting when viewed through the lens of Peacock’s discovery of this story. We often think of art as something static, something that gets put away in a box in a museum so that people can occasionally gaze upon it before going on their merry way. But what if we let art move us? What if we let the art that others created centuries ago motivate and inspire our own creative self-exploration?
Peacock’s self-reflective passages in The Paper Garden provide a beautiful example of how old art can bring something new to our experiences in life today. Art can open up something powerful in each of us. Maybe it can even unleash the power of age – of all the stories and relationships and heartaches and joys that we’ve had over a lifetime.
So, my challenge for you is to answer two questions:
- What art moves you? (Visual art, film, music, dance – everything counts!)
- What would happen if you let the art move you further?
Please leave your thoughts below.