Mary Granville could easily have been the protagonist of one of those boringly wordy Georgian 3 volume novels, now long unread and forgotten. The first tome would have covered her early life: from the minor aristocracy, well-educated and talented but not very well off. Married off young to an elderly powerful admirer she disliked, this opening volume closes with him dying but leaving her high and dry and homeless.
The second volume would have Mary living on the fringes of court life, pursued by many suitors until she meets and then finally marries a quiet unassuming but much older clergyman for love, then retiring to a beautiful villa and creating a splendid garden. This volume is much more lively and positive but ends with his death and her return to London once again with little money.
The final part of the trilogy would explain how she spent her last years as a much-loved widow following her hobbies and somehow meeting and being befriended by the royal family before finally dying aged 83.
And if that was all there was to her story who would ever have heard of Mary Granville. But luckily it wasn’t. She was a woman of “accomplishments” and her skills in them were far from ordinary and she left behind an extraordinary artistic legacy including shell-work, fine needlework, plastering, japanning, drawing, painting and most famously her ‘paper mosaiks’. And for that, of course she is better known as Mrs Delany.
Mary’s father was an army officer and younger brother of Lord Lansdowne, a leading Tory politician. Born in 1700, she spent time in court circles as a child with her aunt, and was destined, like her, to become a Maid of Honour to Queen Anne. But in 1714 when Anne died so did Mary’s chances as all the queen’s Tory entourage were swept aside by the new Hanoverian regime. The out-of-favour Granvilles left London for Buckland, an estate in Gloucestershire. There, at the age of 17, Mary was pressured into marrying the 60 year old Alexander Pendarves, a wealthy but alcoholic Tory MP. It appears the thinking was that Mary would easily outlive her husband and inherit his Roscrow Castle estate, and this which would solve the family’s financial worries. Unfortunately after Pendarves death in 1726 it transpired that he had left the castle to his nieces rather than his wife and Mary was suddenly homeless and with a jointure of £400 a year, far from wealthy.
She returned to London and the fringes of court life, living with relations and friends, but benefitting from the much wider range of activities opening up for women. She was able to indulge her taste for all sorts of arts and handicrafts. She was friends with Handel and even had lessons from Hogarth. She read everything she could get her hands on in both French and English: plays, opera libretti, tragedies, novels, periodicals, sermons, histories, biographies and philosophical tracts… and she was chatted up by many eligible and some not so eligible suitors.
In 1743, her life took a surprising turn. Much to everyone’s surprise, and against the better judgement of some of her relations she gave up her independence and agreed to marry an Irish clergyman, Dr Patrick Delany, who she had met several years earlier on a trip to Ireland. She wrote later: “I could not have been so happy with any man in the world as the person I am now united to; his real benevolence of heart, the great delight he takes in making everyone happy about him, is a disposition so uncommon, that I would not change that one circumstance of happiness for all the riches and greatness in the world.”
She writes, upon arrival in 1743 at Delville, Patrick Delany’s villa at Glasnevin, on the outskirts of Dublin: “Never was seen a sweeter dwelling. I have traversed the house and gardens,and never saw a more agreeable place…”
Patrick Delany was already a keen gardener and with his new wife began to rethink Delville’s 11 acres, turning for advice to his friends Jonathan Swift, the Dean of Dublin, and Alexander Pope.
Unsurprisingly Pope urged them to move away from the still prevalent formal geometric style and embrace the latest fashion, creating what was almost certainly Ireland’s first naturalistic garden: an early picturesque paradise, complete with Ionic temple and grotto.
Delville became one of the intellectual centres of Dublin life, and its gardens later formed the basis for the National Botanical Gardens of Ireland, although the house itself was demolished in 1951.
Mary gardened with her husband, and drew and collected plants, leading her friend Mrs Montague to comment that “your drawing-room boasts of eternal spring, nature blooms there when it languishes in gardens.” Unfortunately garden making on the scale the Delany’s wanted was an expensive business, and the good Doctor had spent most of his money on the estate leaving little to Mary when he died in 1768. What was she to do? When most people of her age would have been contemplating a quiet retirement before they met their maker Mary effectively began another career.
It probably began when she was invited to spend much of her time at Bulstrode, the Buckinghamshire home of her close friend Margaret, Duchess of Portland. The year after Dr Delany’s death, and at the age at 69, she started work on a manuscript translation of Hudson’s Flora Anglica, (1762) that ran to 474 quarto pages, with an appended list of the flower species in Latin. More significantly, through the Duchess she met 3 of the most prominent botanical figures of her day: Joseph Banks who recently returned from his voyage to Australia and the Pacific with Captain Cook, his assistant Daniel Solander, the botanist and pupil of Linnaeus, and the botanical artist George Dionysius Ehret. After visiting Banks’ home in London with the Duchess of Portland she wrote to her brother that they had seen “some of the fruits of his travels and were delighted with paintings of the Otaheitie [Tahiti] plants, quite different from anything the Duchess ever saw, so they must be very new to me.”
As a result, in her early 70s, Mary began assembling what was to become her most celebrated work , the Flora Delanica. This was an extraordinary detailed and accurate florilegium of nearly 1000 complex and beautiful images of flowers and plants which she called ‘paper mosaiks’. Describing her method in a letter to her niece, dated October 4th, 1772, she wrote: “I have invented a new way of imitating flowers”.
Apparently she was sitting at Bulstrode one day looking at a red ‘geranium’ – probably newly introduced from southern Africa, and noticed that it was a similar shade to a piece of paper on a nearby table. Seizing her scissors she cut out petal shapes from the red paper and then found some green paper to cut into leaves and began assembling it as a picture. So lifelike was the result that when the Duchess next came into the room she asked “what are you doing with the geranium?” thinking Mary was wielding her scissors on the plant itself.
Flora Delanica was an extraordinary achievement. The images were collages composed of finely cut coloured papers, many of which she dyed herself. Each was assembled and glued onto a black paper background and is accurate down to the minutest botanical detail, as well as having artistic depth and shading. They often incorporate as many as 200 cut pieces in a single flower and its thought she may well have dissected each specimen to examine its structure carefully the better to recreate it. In many ways each collage resembles an herbarium specimen, and she even terms the whole collection her Hortus Siccus. Every piece was labelled with the plant’s Linnaean and common names as well as her monogram cut in red paper in one corner. Each is also annotated on the back with the details of where and when the work had been done and who had supplied the original plant for her to copy.
The Draecana terminalis, for example, had come from Dr Pitcairn’s garden in Islington, and been made at St James Palace in April 1780. Often too she added real leaves to the image alongside her painted paper ones for comparison, reflecting the realisation that herbarium specimens lose their colour. This was an idea that was taken up in Paris by the Abbe Hauy who “bleached” the flowers he wanted to preserve, then laid them onto painted copies so that the colour slowly seeped into the plant material which he said “preserved the lustre for many years.” [For more on this see Maria Zytaruk’s chapter in Mary Delany & her Circle. Full reference below]
Her work drew the attention of the royal family. The Duchess’s daughter, Lady Weymouth was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte, and in 1776 was “sent by the queen to desire I would bring the hortus siccus.” Already “plentifully supplied” from the hothouse at Bulstrode, she was now rewarded with a regular supply of plants from the royal gardens at Kew as well, with others coming from Luton Hoo, the home of Lord Bute with whose family Mrs Delany had stayed. Other plant collectors such as Pitcairn also gave her specimens, in his case particularly of alpines since he had co-sponsored a plant hunting trip to the alps by Thomas Blaikie, this coincides with the time that the first rock garden was being created at Chelsea Physic Garden. [Interesting subject perhaps for another post!] More than half of the images she created were of new introductions.
This fine work took a strain on on her eyesight. All her life a great correspondent in 1782 she wrote that she found it less tiring “to attempt a flower now and then than to write a letter as the white paper dazzles my eyes.” Finally at the age of 83 she was forced to give up making more, writing a poem of farewell to the flowers to which she had devoted the previous ten years of her life.
Towards the end of her life Mary Delany was ‘adopted’ by the royal family. After the death of the Duchess of Portland and thus the loss of her part-time home at Bulstrode, they gave her the use of a small house at Windsor together with a pension of £300 pa and of course made sure that beautiful or unusual plants continued to be sent to her.
Mrs Delany died on the 15th of April 1788. A large body of correspondence survives, although it was carefully sifted by her, with more including her correspondence with poet William Mason burned. Her great niece and heir Lady Llanover had instructions to burn even more, and then edited the rest before publishing it in 1861. So we have a very carefully managed view of Mrs Delany who was hailed by Edmund Burke as “the woman of fashion of all ages”.
Flora Delanica fills ten volumes and was given to the British Museum by her niece and biographer, Lady Llanover in 1897. Despite their extreme fragility there are usually two on display at any one time in the Enlightenment Gallery there.
Claridge Druce writing about her work nearly 100 years ago in 1926 noted that her “collection is really an extraordinary exhibition of industry, combined with refined taste and unwearied patience. Some of the sheets are quite beautiful.” His assessment of Mary Delany’s worked still stands true.
All her collages are held by the British Museum, and are available online. For more information on her life and work see: Mrs Delany Her Circle, edited by Mark Laird and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, which is a beautifully produced and very informative exhibition catalogue published by Yale University Press, and definitely worth looking at if you get a chance. More easily available is Ruth Hayden’s 1980 Mrs Delany: Her Life and her Flowers.
There is also a scholarly new edition of her early letters undertaken as a PhD thesis by Francesca Wilde, University of York in 2003 which is freely available to read or download at