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The British Museum - Mrs Delaney

A couple of months ago, as part of my research into the use of paper in art during the Regency era, I discovered the work of Mary Delaney. She was 72 when she began producing Paper Mosaicks, as she called them, in 1772. The dates of her life (1700 - 1788) mean that in fact she knew Britain during the reigns of George II and his grandson George III. She lived therefore just shy of the Regency. Nevertheless her work is poignant, informative and important. She began as a child cutting paper silhouettes (profiles or shades, as they were known at the time), a popular pastime in the 18th and 19th centuries; she'd cut complete paper scenes. But it was her interest in botanical subject matter that inspired her to heights unknown before or arguably since then. Basically she invented what we know now as paper collage.

Click here to listen to an audio extract of my reading the first few paragraphs of The Paper Garden Mrs Delaney (begins her life's work) at 72 by Molly Peacock.

Papaver somniferum, the Opium Poppy, Bulstrode, October 18 1776 photographed from The Paper Garden

Really her work is astounding, her eyesight and the unwavering surety of her hands, and therefore of each cut line, quite incredible. Immediately I'd begun reading about her work I wanted to start practicing. Immediately I began practising I realised how hard it would be to produce work of a similar quality.

Early on Molly Peacock informs her readers that Mary's paper flowers survive, preserved in the drawing and prints archives of the British Museum, making them available for limited viewing. The more I worked on my own version of a red poppy the more I knew I needed to see real examples of Mary's work, to hold them close to my face and see the cut lines which seem invisible in reproductions. My appointment date arranged with the department I continued experimenting. I began by drawing...

...moved onto quilling...

...then made early, shabby attempts at mimicry re. paper mosaicking...

Still, unhappy with the results I was achieving I was delighted when the day of my visit finally came.

It was exciting to climb the stairs to the fourth floor of the British Museum, at the time arranged, and to then sit for an hour in the drawing and prints storage/viewing library with a pair of white gloves, a box of images and a viewing easel. Each visitor is allowed to see only a single box of 8-10 images because they are, unsurprisingly, fragile and indeed strangely popular. I wasn't surprised really to hear the latter said but I did wonder why it had taken me so long to come across their existence if, apparently, everyone else knows about them. Anyway, each page i held had been taken from Mary's original albums and mounted. In fact they remain remarkably well preserved considering they are now well over 200 years old.

You can see the collection of Paper Mosaicks by Mary Delaney that the British Museum holds at: But here are a few of the close up details I took (for research purposes):

I'll confess I was looking for, and photographing, in part, the areas that make evident these works were made by human hands, the areas that make clear that glue was used, and can be messy. I went there hoping to find areas of the works that, under close inspection, would be seen to be less impressive, more real, slightly scrappy. Not because I meant to undermine her achievement but because I was needing to know that the technique was achievable. I needed to see for myself that Mrs D would have struggled at moments with real materials, that she might have made mistakes. I needed to be sure that as I suspected perfection, when closely scrutinised, is found to be often formed in fact from a mass of slightly rough-edged, abstracted elements.

Currently there are two examples of her work in the Enlightenment Gallery on the ground floor of the museum also and I made sure I saw those too but when seen set back, behind glass, Mary's flowers appear as finished and complete as they do in books. Only holding them allowed me to see them as they actually are, pieces which, like any work of art, might have been worked on further, were it not for the fact that something told her in each case to stop. Pieces that have been formed from some magic combination of imperfections, happy accidents of combinations of shapes and blended colours of the sort that only someone with skill and an eye for such things can conjure.

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