Molly Peacock’s ‘Paper Garden’ is a celebration of creativity

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Molly Peacock’s ‘Paper Garden’ is a celebration of creativity
--I did not get to see this one, but so wish I had been able to--RL Molly Peacock’s ‘Paper Garden’ is a celebration of creativity By DONNA SEAMAN Special to The Star Prominent poet and memoirist Molly Peacock first saw Mary Delany’s extraordinary flower “mosaicks” on exhibit in New York City in 1986. Although she swooned over the intricately detailed cut-and-paste floral portraits, she wasn’t ready to fully appreciate their surprising expressiveness or the invincible 18th-century Englishwoman who created them. The poet had some more living to do. When she does return to Delany’s “paper garden,” nothing less than a harmonic convergence occurs, uniting two kindred spirits. At 72, Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700-1788) was slowly emerging from the fog of grief when she began constructing her botanically accurate and boldly voluptuous flowers out of hundreds of tiny, meticulously shaped pieces of colored paper. She was mourning her sister Anne, with whom she sustained a voluminous, witty and vivid correspondence, and her second husband, the Irish clergyman Dean Patrick Delany. Well-connected, Delany was staying with wealthy and generous Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland and a dynamo whom Peacock describes as a “hungry intellectual and a voracious collector.” The duchess instantly recognized the unique beauty of her dear friend’s dramatic assemblages. Encouraged, Delany “worked with joy and speed,” ultimately producing 985 collages that astonished and delighted family and friends, including Queen Charlotte and King George III, who welcomed the pleasant distraction from the escalating colonial revolt on the other side of the Atlantic. As a girl, Mary excelled at the artistic skills requisite for a life of service at court. Hers was a world of posture boards, needlework and rigorous etiquette, yet no amount of decorum could prevent the political turmoil that led to the Granvilles’ precipitous fall. Surely, Peacock imagines, Mary relied on her exceptional capacity for concentration and discipline to cope with her family’s reversal of fortune, especially after her cruel and greedy uncle essentially sold the accomplished and vivacious 17-year-old to Alexander Pendarves, a 60-year-old “drunken squire” dwelling in a “dank castle with crenellated towers called Roscrow, in Cornwall.” Even worse, the arranged marriage was for naught. By the time gouty Pendarves died, the fortune Mary’s uncle counted on was gone. But at 23, Mary had something far more precious: her freedom. Exultant in her liberation and avidly social, this clever, talented and stylish (she designed clothes and embroidered fabric) young widow traveled in circles that included George Frideric Handel, Jonathan Swift and William Hogarth. Suitors buzzed about like bees around a flower, and both romance and heartache followed. Her ardor for gardens led her to Ireland, where she met Swift’s gregarious friend, Patrick Delany. Mary found him alluring, but he was engaged to a wealthy widow. The marriage ended with his wife’s death 12 years later. He promptly proposed to Mary, and their loving union lasted nearly two dozen years. Peacock recounts with verve and empathy each chapter in Mary Delany’s life, which was as intricate as one of her flowers and would on its own make for a scintillating biography. But the poet –– who reveres Delany as a role model exemplifying a late-in-life artistic flowering –– digs much deeper. When she finally returned to Delany’s paper flowers years after her first sighting, Peacock studied them with great excitement and discernment at the British Museum. This close reading convinced her that Delany’s “paper garden” is, in fact, a covert visual memoir, an “autobiography in botany.” Peacock cites the eroticism of Delany’s flowers, which glow against lustrous black backgrounds “like queens reigning or divas belting out their arias.” So much, Peacock assures us, can be conveyed in a stem, a thorn, a corolla. “Rosa gallica, Cluster Damask,” in which one leaf has a hole so perfectly round it could have been made by a bullet, is rife with clues to young Mary’s dashed dreams. “Nodding Thistle” portrays a pretty, adaptable and ferociously well-armored wildflower, a plant much like resilient Mary. Flower by flower, Peacock decodes Delany’s record of her inner life. Peacock also pushes beyond the conventions of traditional biography by entwining her life story with that of her subject. She finds parallels to Delany’s struggles in her own stolen youth, which required much self-sacrifice to help sustain a family riven by alcoholism and money troubles. She also endured a failed first marriage, then reconnected with a long-lost love. And, most significantly, both she and Delany found ways to transmute life into art. Peacock muses over how both poems and the flower “mosaicks” involve the habit of keen observation. Both art forms require the selection and arrangement of many small parts to create a whole. Both make innovative use of similes and symbols. Both are imaginative distillations of unwieldy emotions, thoughts and memories. Both were life savers. Another fascinating tale within the tale is the story of how Delany’s letters, journals and artwork were preserved by her family, generation by generation. Peacock, whose research was as inspired as it was assiduous, tracked down Delany’s great-great-great-great-great-great niece, the remarkable Ruth Hayden, whose response to Delany’s “paper garden” mirrored Peacock’s: initial awe, a long hiatus during difficult times and a life-changing return. Although she never made it through high school, Hayden ended up writing the foundational book about her extraordinary ancestor, “Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers” (1980). She also showed Peacock how to get a blackbird to eat dried currants from her hand. It feels as though Peacock is channeling Delany’s spirit in this vital, exquisitely crafted portrait, the piquant fruit of an artistic cross-pollination. So immersed was Peacock in Delany’s art, she forged a glinting lexicon out of botanical terms and the tools and techniques Delany used, giving rise to striking metaphors involving scissors and petals, paper and stamens. Part biography, part memoir and a veritable prose poem, Peacock’s luscious, witty and profound homage to Mary Delany assures us that a life, no matter how daunting, can be a seedbed for creativity and enlightenment when it is lived with curiosity, attentiveness, principles and generosity of spirit. The Paper Garden: An Artist {Begins her Life’s Work} at 72, by Molly Peacock (416 pages; Bloomsbury; $28)
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