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Book Review: “The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72″ by Molly Peacock


Mary Delany lived from 1700 to 1788. When she was 72, she set out to paint 1000 hand-painted paper collages of flowers (a medium essentially of her own invention). The “mosaiks”, as Mary Delany called them, can still be seen in the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum today. Before her eyes finally gave out, she made it to 985 in 16 years. There was one particularly productive month when she completed 30. In the 18th century, there were no art supply stores; Mary made her own paints and most of her own paper. Yet her collages were so well-constructed that they survive today. Note that the collage of the “Winter Cherry” below shows that she glued the actual spent and skeletonized pods (the two lower ones) to the paper and they are intact over 200 years later. Given the lack of opportunity and encouragement given to women in the 18th century and the fact that this major artistic endeavor was undertaken in the last years of her long and fascinating life, her achievement is truly extraordinary. How many contemporary women have you known who took on a 16 year project at the age of 72?

Molly Peacock, the author, is primarily a poet who became so fascinated by Mary Delany’s collages that she spent years researching her life in order to write this historical novel. Her writing style is very lyrical, perhaps too much so for anyone who dislikes poetry. As a result, her prose takes a bit of getting used to. She even knits her own life experiences into the narrative. While it startled me at first, her poetic style wooed and won me by half way through the book. My reading slowed, and I read carefully and fully, savoring every phrase. At the end of six weeks, when it ended, I cried. Honest, I did.
Mary Delany lived her 18th century woman’s life more fully than anyone I have ever known. I don’t know when I’ve been so moved and inspired by a book.

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