February 4, 2013

The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

This wonderful book is subtitled Mrs. Delany [begins her life's work] at 72. It's the true story of an upper-class woman of the 1700s who at age 72 invented an art form that we now know as collage or mixed-media art.

One day Mary Delany watched as a geranium petal fell beside her onto a table, near a piece of paper of the exact same colour. She picked up her scissors, began to snip petals out of the paper, pasted them down with flour and water glue, and so began a project that absorbed her for the next 10 years until her eyesight failed. In all she made 985 exquisite collages of hundreds of different flowers, all from real life, and grew quite famous with them. The whole collection is at the National Gallery in London.

This is a beautifully, densely written story which kept me completely absorbed. Peacock, who is a poet, writes the book in prose but with many poetic turns of phrase and surprises. She weaves her own story throughout with the story of Mrs. Delany and also the stories of some of the ancestors who preserved Mrs. Delany's work. She deftly shapes the chapters around 14 of the collages from which she gleans life themes and stitches in historical details.

The book is beautiful to hold - a thick, compact 5"x8" volume with graphics from three of the collages on black on the cover. All the pages are smooth and glossy, and the book contains 14 colour collage pages along with a detail picture for each one later in the chapter, and several portraits of the key characters. The pages are gorgeously laid out with lots of space between the lines, wide margins, and pretty details like page numbers in the lower outside margins and funky subtitles in parentheses.

Peacock illustrates so skilfully from start to finish how all the things Mrs. Delany experienced in life, including a strict upbringing, posture boards, insistence on perfection in school, a terrible marriage, wealth, relative poverty at times, free time, a love for flowers, the endless stitchery that was part of 18th century life for women, added up quite unexpectedly to a whole new art form. Another theme she stresses at the end is that Mrs. Delany had two supporters - her husband and her best friend - without whose encouragement she likely could never have done the extraordinary art that she did.

It makes me think about how we encourage each other to create, and how we receive that encouragement. Also of course the book reminded me that you're not necessarily on a big downhill slide just because you've turned 60. Altogether a marvelous and inspiring book.

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