Mary Granville, or Mrs. Delany, is remembered for her letters and for her elaborate paper flower work and her magnificent needlework. What’s most remarkable about Mrs. Delany is the fact that she only hit her artistic stride after reaching the age of 72! Twice widowed with no children, Mrs. Delany became a royal favorite and sought after by society, numbering Handel, Jonathan Swift, the Duchess of Portland, Fanny Burney and the king and queen of England among her closest friends, all while executing an astonishing body of work that includes the Flora Delanica – almost 1,000 botanical collages that took a decade to complete.
Mary Granville was married at seventeen to the Cornish squire, Alexander Pendarves of Roscrow, who was more than forty years older than she and described by a contemporary as being ‘ugly, disagreeable and gouty’. After he died in 1724, Mary discovered that she’d been left annuity in the hundreds of pounds, far less than she’d anticipated, yet enough to allow her travel amongst relatives and forge ties and friendships that would serve her well in later life.
In the following years, Mary designed an unusual court dress of intricately detailed floral embroidery on black satin. Portions of the dress, preserved in frames by her heirs, reveal the sort of attention to detail that would later be the hallmark of her lifelike floral collages.
While in Dublin in 1740, Mary met Patrick Delany, a Anglican cleric, widower and close friend of Swift’s who would become her second husband in 1743. The marriage was a true love match and Mary flourished under Mr. Delany’s affection and his support of her talents. She had her own workroom at their home in Ireland, with a large bow window overlooking the gardens. Here, Mary made landscape drawings, silhouettes and “japanned” (lacquered) objects. A larger project was the garden grotto Mary designed and executed at Alexander Pope’s estate.
Upon Mr. Delany’s death in 1768, Mary took up residence with her friend and fellow widow the Duchess of Portland. It was the Duchess who introduced Mrs. Delany to Queen Charlotte, and she became a firm favourite at court, where her talents, intellect and ‘social refinement’ were much admired.
The Duchess of Portland died in 1785, and the King and Queen, concerned for the welfare of their old friend, offered Mrs. Delany an annuity and a small house at Windsor.
On September 3rd, Queen Charlotte wrote: ‘My dear Mrs. Delany will be glad to hear that I am charged by the king to summon her to her new abode at Windsor for Tuesday next, when she will find all the most essential parts of the house ready, excepting some little trifles that it will be better for Mrs. Delany to direct herself in person or by her little deputy, Miss Port. I need not, I hope, add that I shall be extremely glad and happy to see so amiable an inhabitant in this our sweet retreat, and wish very sincerely that our dear Mrs. Delany may enjoy every blessing among us that her merits deserve, and that we may long enjoy her amiable company. Amen. These are the true sentiments of my dear Mrs. Delany’s very affectionate queen, Charlotte.’
Mrs. Delany wrote the following account of her arrival at Windsor to her friend Mrs. Hamilton : ‘I arrived here about eight o’clock in the evening and found his Majesty in the house ready to receive me. I threw myself at his feet, indeed unable to utter a word; he raised and saluted me, and said he meant not to stay longer than to desire I would order everything that could make the house comfortable and agreeable to me, and then retired. Truly, I found nothing wanting, as it is as pleasant and commodious as I could wish it to be, with a very pretty garden, which joins that of the Queen’s Lodge. The next morning her Majesty sent one of her ladies to know how I had rested, and how I was in health, and whether her coming would not be troublesome. I was lame, and therefore could not go down to the door as I ought to have done, but her Majesty came upstairs. Our meeting was mutually affecting; she well knew the value of what I had lost, and it was some time after we were seated before either of us could speak. She repeated in the strongest terms her wish and the king’s, that I should be as easy and happy as they could possibly make me; that they waived all ceremony, and desired to come to me as friends! The queen also delivered me a paper from the king: it contained the first quarter of £300 per annum, which his majesty allows me out of his privy purse. Their majesties have drunk tea with me five times, and the princesses three. They generally stay two hours or longer. In short, I have either seen them or heard of them every day, but I have not yet been at the Queen’s Lodge, though they have expressed impatience for me to come, as I have still so sad a drawback on my spirits that I must decline that honour till I am better able to enjoy it, and they have the goodness not to press me. Their visits here are paid in the most quiet, private manner, like those of the most consoling, disinterested friends; so that I may truly say they are a royal cordial, and I see very few people besides. I have been three times in the king’s private chapel at early prayers, where the royal family constantly attend, and they walk home to breakfast afterwards, whilst I am conveyed in a very elegant chair which the king has made me a present of for that purpose.
While at Windsor, Mrs. Delany would befriend Fanny Burney and receive regular visits from Mrs. Garrick, the late actor’s widow. Perhaps it was the Duchess of Portland’s friendship that had the most influence on the art Mrs. Delany would undertake later in life. Each year, Mrs. Delany made a visit of several months to Bulstrode, the duchess’s estate in Buckinghamshire, where she had access to an extraordinary cabinet of curiosities that included rare and exotic plants and flowers. Also at Bulstrode were the botanist John Lightfoot, the botanical artist Georg Dionysius Ehret and other advocates of the revolutionary taxonomy developed by the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus. Mrs. Delany observed their dissections of flowers and taught herself the art of the “hortus siccus,” or pressed-flower composition. These experiments would give her the knowledge and understanding of flowers that would breathe life into her collages.
Eventually, Mrs. Delany devised a means of cutting tiny pieces of paper to create her flower collages and she went on to create several volumes of these ‘paper mosaic’ plants and flowers. So amazing were their realistic qualities that King George III ordered the volumes to be preserved in the British Museum “as a standard work of art unparalleled for accuracy of drawing, form, and perspective, as well as colouring, truth of outline, and close resemblance to nature.” Horace Walpole called her collages “precision and truth unparalleled,” while author William Gilpin wrote, “These flowers have both the beauty of painting, and the exactness of botany.”
Part Two coming soon!