Mrs Delany’s Petticoat

Firescreen with embroidery design attributed to Mary Delany [then Mary Pendarves] c.1740

I write about all sorts of strange things on this blog but can’t think of much more obscure than this week’s starting point which is a Georgian firescreen which turns out not to be just a firescreen but part of a  panel for a dress.   If you’re wondering why then take a careful  look at the workmanship.  It was so fine that when the owner died her heirs took the dress apart, divided it up and framed the best sections.

But what’s that got to do with garden history?  Quite simply the dress was designed by Mary Pendarves [later Mrs Delany], the heroine of a recent post about her botanical art in cut paper form, and the dress – strictly speaking a petticoat  for a court mantua – shows that her botanical knowledge and craft skills were immense, so the dress has, according to garden historian Mark Laird,  “the most accurate horticultural detailing of any work I’ve seen from this period.”

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Another victory for Houghton

Houghton Hall in Norfolk (which I wrote about last week) hit the headlines in the arts pages earlier this year because it is playing host in a spectacular way to an exhibition of paintings and sculptures by Damien Hirst.  The roads for miles around were splashed with  posters featuring Hirst’s spotty paintings enticing visitors to go and see them in the state apartments  where the family portraits normally hang . So while last week’s post was a potted history of this great 18thc estate in Norfolk this week’s is about what’s happened to it in very recent times.

There were two main reasons why I wanted to go to Houghton now. One was to see the Hirst and the other was to see  the garden created in memory of the marquess’s grandmother Sybil Sassoon.

One was worth every penny of the £18 admission charge. The other wasn’t.

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The East Front of Houghton

I visited Houghton recently. It’s a vast early 18thc landscape park in rural west Norfolk surrounding a Grade 1 listed Palladian house  built for Sir Robert Walpole, who was effectively Britain’s  first Prime Minister.  I’ve wanted to go there for a long time but a new temporary exhibition there finally convinced me to go now as a birthday treat.

Houghton Hall is the home of the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, the hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain of England and his family, but he doesn’t appear to be as traditional as his titles might suggest, and  is developing  Houghton into a lively centre for the contemporary arts, while maintaining and enhancing its extraordinary heritage including its gardens and parkland.

The West Front of Houghton, from Isaac Ware’s The Plans, Elevations and Sections, Chimney-pieces and Ceilings of Houghton in Norfolk , 1731

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Rena Gardiner: topgraphical artist and printmaker

The Pantheon at Stowe, late 1960s from Rena Gardiner by Julian Francis & Martin Andrews

In a recent post about Cotehele in Cornwall I included a couple of images of lino prints by Rena Gardiner, a Dorset-based artist and printmaker.  I was so taken with them that I decided to find out more about her. Googling came up with very little apart from the fact that there was a recent biography and that she’d produced a lot of guidebooks for the National Trust in the 1970s and 1980s. So it was off to the British Library to look at them.

The biography is a beautiful produced book by Julian Francis and Martin Andrews, packed with images of her work but still containing very little in the way of biographical information.  It appears Rena Gardiner was a quite private woman for whom work was the centre of her life.

In the words of one critic: “Combining the great tradition of British topographic artists with the rich era of autolithography of the 1940s and 1950s, she created her own very personal and individual visual style. An unsung heroine of printmaking, uninterested in publicity or fame, she created an artistic legacy that is instantly recognisable for its exuberant use of colour and texture.” Continue reading

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Mary’s Mosaiks

Amaryllis reginae, (Mexican Lily)  1775 
© The Trustees of the British Museum

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.

Mary from an enamel and gold portrait box by Zincke, c.1740 Christies

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.

Magnolia tripetala (Umbrella Tree). 1779  British Museum

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.


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