Single ideas are so precious themselves that is is doubly wondrous to see an idea beget another idea.
In this case, the art endeavor that a woman began in 1772 inspired another woman 228 years later to document that work and life in a book — and to simultaneously use that book as a sort of trellis on which to weave her own life’s story.
I’m speaking of “The Paper Garden,” by Mollie Peacock. This sort-of-dual memoir tells the story of twice-widowed Englishwoman Mary Delaney, who at age 72 created a unique form of botanical art that she worked in for the remaining 16 years of her life.
“One afternoon in 1772 she noticed how a piece of colored paper matched the dropped petal of a geranium,” writes Ms. Peacock. ”After making that vital imaginative connection between paper and petal, she lifted the eighteenth-century equivalent of an X-Acto blade … With the instrument alive in her still rather smooth-skinned hand, she began to maneuver, carefully cutting the exact geranium petal shape from the scarlet paper. And then she snipped out another. And another, and another, with the trance-like efficiency of repetition — commencing the most remarkable work of her life.”
Mary Delany eventually produced almost 1,000 of what she called “mosaicks” and what we today would call ”mixed media collages” — realistically and artistically detailed portraits of cut-paper flowers. Her collection is now housed in the British Museum as “Flora Delanica.”
Ms. Peacock came upon part of this collection when it was on loan at New York’s Morgan Library in 1986 — well, to be precise, as she writes, “I saw my first flower mosaick at three o’clock on Saturday, September 27, 1986 … I could not get over the dexterity, the eyesight, and the fine muscle coordination that had produced them. I was hooked. I was sunk … I felt nearly ashamed about how deeply I swooned over her work.” To be really precise, she fell in love. Why? ”Those flowers had the carefully crafted but mysterious quality of the poems I most admired.”
And so, in studying and documenting Mrs. Delany’s story, Ms. Peacock found that it presaged many of her own personal and professional struggles as she established herself as a poet, a professor and a person. Thus, “The Paper Garden” also tells her story.
Most of all, the book is a long and carefully studied meditation on youth and aging and growth and what makes a woman’s life work — or a woman’s life’s work. Ms. Peacock quotes Mary Delany at the beginning of the book: “How can people say we grow indifferent as we grow old? It is just the reverse” … and offers her own conclusion 360 pages later: “Living a full life requires invention, but that needs a previous pattern, if only to react against or, happily, to refigure in the making of something new. A multitude of vectors brings us to the moment where we are, and where we love, or cough, or say the wrong thing, or fail, or feel our fate in what we fear, or to a moment when clarity descends, and we understand the world simply from having observed it.”