Monday, May 7, 2012

Review: The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

Looking at the rose on the cover of this book, I knew I had seen it before, reproduced on a variety of items. I might even have written letters on notecards printed with its likeness. What I didn't realize was that this is not a painting, it is in fact a paper collage, intricately scissor-cut and botanically correct. And more even than that, I had zero idea who the artist was and would have been shocked to find out that Mary Granville Pendarves Delany worked her gorgeous craft only starting at the age of 72 so long ago in 1772 had I not been coveting this book for a while now and so learned a bit about it and the artist behind it.

Poet Molly Peacock has written a fascinating part biography of Mary Delany, part personal memoir, part art criticism, and part introduction to her obsession and role model. Delany's life and the fact that she created her seminal work, now housed in the British Museum and called the Flora Delanica, a collection of 985 detailed, painstakingly constructed, accurate, and magnificent flower mosaicks, creating the art of mixed media collage (paper, paint, and sometimes actual plant parts), at such an advanced age and at a time when she was trying to overcome the grief of having lost the two people dearest to her, first her sister Anne and then her second husband Patrick Delany, is impressive and inspiring indeed.

Each chapter is fronted by a color plate of one of the flower mosaicks from the collection. Drawing parallels between the mosaicks themselves and the events of Mary Delany's earlier life, Peacock uses each flower to tell the story of Mary's life and expose the general life of 18th century women of a certain social standing in England. Delany's life is meticulously researched and interpreted, from her unhappy first marriage to a significantly older, personally repulsive husband to whom she was essentially sold by her guardian uncle through her deep and emotionally satisfying relationship with her sister and lifelong friends to the fulfilling and happy union late in life with her second husband. At the end of each chapter, Peacock interweaves her own biographical portions, drawing parallels in her own life to that of Mrs. Delany. In addition to these two very personal stories, there are also fascinating bits of history and botany and the details of the actual physical composition of the mosaicks as well.

Although the flowers were created long past many of the defining events of Delany's long life, Peacock uses them to illustrate each stage, each restriction, each revelled in independence therein. Coming from a very twenty-first century perspective, Peacock describes the flowers in terms of extreme sexualization. Even readers today will be taken aback by some of the language she uses, especially when considering that she is describing the life of an 18th century aristocratic woman, one to whom these blunt comparisons to female body parts would almost certainly never have occurred. And Peacock certainly reads more into the placement of flowers, stems, and other botanical parts than Delany likely ever intended, not that Delany's conscious intentions necessarily define as far as interpretations of her artwork should go.

Her interpretation of the mosaicks is not the only place that Molly Peacock as author intrudes on the text. Unlike in traditional biographies, she does not remain hidden behind her subject. Her own thoughts and pieces of her own life weave into the narrative as well, accompanying clearly stated opinions. Sometimes the weaving is fairly seamless and other times it comes across as a bit forced. There are rather broad strokes of comparison between the long-dead artist and the modern day poet, because closer examination shows their lives to be more dissimilar than not, although the fire of inspiration burns bright in both of them. And Peacock's tale of discovering Delany's works and then years later finding the awe-inspiring importance in them to herself as an artist and creator is interesting. She shares her reading and researching, her construction of Delany's life with the reader, just as careful examination of Delany's mosaicks reveals their delicate and precise construction to the viewer as well.

There is a sometimes complimentary, sometimes discordant marriage of the 18th century with the 21st century within the pages of this book. Unconventionally constructed, the biography/history/botanical tale is completely engrossing, offering insight into not only the life and times but also the creative process of art in a time when women's lives were quite constrained. The layering of Delany's life with an exposition on her art and the slight overlay of Peacock's life and experiences make for a rich and deep read. When the focus is on Delany, her works, her experiences, and the world she lived in, the book is strongest but the other certainly adds a different and unique perspective. Having made the acquaintance of the fascinating Mrs. Delany, I'd love to one day have the opportunity to see her works in person.

For more information about Molly Peacock and the book visit her website, the book's website, or read an excerpt. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. You make me want to read this book!

  2. I'd love to see this artwork in person as well - it is quite unusual and beautiful!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.


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