An eye for a bloom

ARTS LIVES: In the 1980s, Irish designer Sybil Connolly revived interest in the 18th-century artist and writer Mary Delany by…

ARTS LIVES:In the 1980s, Irish designer Sybil Connolly revived interest in the 18th-century artist and writer Mary Delany by basing a collection of tableware for Tiffany on her stunning floral collages. A new book examines the life and times of this extraordinary woman, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY

ON FRIDAY, January 6th, 1951, a report appeared in The Irish Times, confirming the demolition of Delville, "the 18th-century house built by Dr Delany". It recorded the loss of yet another Georgian building, yet another chapter of history closed forever. By the aesthetic standards of its day, the five-bay, villa-style house was not particularly beautiful, but its setting, in an 11-acre garden in Glasnevin, Dublin, complete with Ionic temple and grotto, made it idyllic.

It was also the home to which its builder, Dr Patrick Delany, Dean of Down and tutor at Trinity College, brought, in 1744, his second wife, the remarkable Mary Delany, artist, letter-writer and, ultimately, invaluable witness and commentator. This English woman, who served Ireland well, was a friend of Jonathan Swift whom she first met in 1731 when she was a young widow on her first visit to Ireland.

More than 12 years later, she returned to Ireland at the age of 44, the year after she married widower Delany, 16 years her senior, against her family’s wishes. Together they lived through an exciting period in Irish cultural history, contributing, as hosts of a cultivated literary circle which included Swift, to the intellectual life of their time.


A portrait of her painted by John Opie when she was 82 hangs in the Royal Collection. It depicts a stern, formidable woman. She was a beloved intimate of King George and Queen Charlotte, living out her final days in a house given to her by the royal couple.

At the age of 76 she finished the magnificently opulent Magnolia grandiflora, in a characteristic construction of coloured papers with body colour and watercolour. She not only had a long, productive life, she had several lives – pursuing various careers and certainly warranting being described as “accomplished”, the most sought after epithet of her day. The statesman Edmund Burke hailed her as “the woman of fashion of all ages”.

Mention of her name is most often in the context of her as a chronicler. She was a tireless letter-writer and an observer of daunting intensity. Although not a historian, she recorded the life of her period. Her interest in Handel’s music caused her to write many letters about rehearsals and performances she attended. Her correspondence remains an important source material on the composer’s career in England. She also typifies the age in which she lived; Mrs Delany, who died a month short of her 88th birthday, was a woman and for all her energy and curiosity was confined by her gender, although her social status and royal connections did confer some freedoms.

Living as she did in an age of exploration, she was drawn to the revolution in botanical knowledge. Patrick Delany, her husband, was a dedicated gardener and much influenced by the garden designs of his close friend, the poet Alexander Pope. At Delville, the Delanys landscaped a wonderful garden, while Mrs Delany went on to become a major botanical artist.

During the late 18th century, gardening became the new religion, with botany and art merging in the name of science. In the absence of cameras, it was the botanical artist, the greatest of all of whom was the German master Georg Dionysius Ehret, who recorded the beauty and exact detail of plants that provided the scientist with source material.

Ehret (1708-1770) had come to work at Kew Gardens and stayed for 50 years. He painted in watercolours and became the most influential botanical artist of all time – his influence may be seen in the work of modern artists such as Wendy Walsh. Delany knew Ehret and admired him, but her technique was different. She created dramatic and precise collages, made from coloured paper, much of which she had dyed herself. The works were then mounted on black backgrounds. Describing her method in a letter to her niece, dated October 4th, 1772, she wrote: “I have invented a new way of imitating flowers”. She was then 72.

As major plant collectors, such as botanist Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) returned from abroad with specimens, the documenting of them was undertaken by artists such as Delany. Banks was confident that any plant depicted by Mrs Delany was accurate and correct.

Her botanical life is explored in a spectacular new book, Mrs Delany Her Circle. An interconnected sequence of 12 essays by art historians evokes a vivid sense of her life and range of interests. She designed fabrics and also worked with shells, creating elaborate grottos, while her interest in architecture, landscape design, fashion and social behaviour has proved invaluable for historians.

Before beginning her career as a collage maker, during which she would complete a collection of almost 1,000 “paper mosaiks” now housed in the British Museum, she had also proved herself a gifted artist in oil and watercolour. Her interest in drawing and painting intensified when she moved to Ireland on her marriage to Dean Delany. His love of gardens inspired her to apply herself to refining her talent for drawing and painting which had long been hobbies.

Once settled in Dublin in 1743, the new Mrs Delany revitalised the Irish textile industry by encouraging her wealthy friends in England to purchase Irish cloth. Already a skilled needlewoman with a flair for embroidery, she designed beautiful patterns, and the court dresses featured in the book are in themselves works of art.

We think of her as the serious old woman in the Opie portrait, alert and disciplined, somewhat difficult to classify, the consummate well-behaved maverick. But her story begins much earlier. The contented wife of Dr Delany had had a relatively joyless childhood, which was ended abruptly by an arranged marriage at the age of 17 to an MP who was 40 years her senior.

She had been born Mary Granville, in 1700, to modestly well-off Wiltshire gentry who had enjoyed royal associations dating back to Elizabeth I. All of this had ended with the death in 1714 of Queen Anne, when Granville’s family lost out in the revised politics. Her father was the younger son of Tory aristocracy. Mary had been well-educated in the classics and music for a good (meaning political) marriage. Under extreme pressure she resigned herself to marrying Alexander Pendarves, a Cornish MP, who was 57 at the time.

It was not a happy union. Years later, she would write: “I was married with great pomp. Never was woe drest (sic) out in gayer colours, and when I was led to the altar, I wished from my soul I had been led, as Iphigenia was, to be sacrificed. I was sacrificed. I lost, not life indeed, but I lost all that makes life desirable – joy and peace of mind . . .”.

Her misery was relatively short-lived. Initially living in Roscrow Castle, Cornwall, the couple then moved to London. Four years later, Pendarves died suddenly, leaving Mary, at 21, a widow. It was to be a long widowhood. Yet she was part of London’s social life. In 1731 a visit to Hogarth’s studio led to a visit to Ireland which began in September 1731 and became an extended stay, continuing until April 1733.

During this time she met Swift and they began a correspondence. She also met Patrick Delany, then about to marry his first wife, a wealthy widow. Delany impressed her sufficiently for her to write of him to Swift: “Dr Delany will make a more desirable friend, for he has all the qualities requisite for friendship – zeal, tenderness and application.” Ironically, just 10 years later, the then widower Delany proposed to her in London and she accepted.The 25 years of their marriage were happy and their shared interests drew a large circle to Delville.

Many of her landscape pen-and-ink drawings held by the National Gallery of Ireland are included in the book. The various essays are formal, specialist pieces, but for all the scholarship, this is a highly approachable volume. Mrs Delany personified the expert amateur, a mercurial type who flourished in the 18th century, and of whom Ireland had a fair share.

In life, she was difficult to define, such were her versatility, gifts and range. Her legacy is excitingly individual. She shows where craft meets the arts, and most importantly that dramatic late-18th-century point at which botany and art joined to serve science. At the age of 83 she finally conceded that her eyesight had begun to fail and, with regret, she laid down her work. Her final years were spent at Windsor Castle.

The young girl whose youth had been stolen by an arranged marriage asserted herself on her life and on her society. Her six-volume autobiography and vast body of letters hold a mirror to a world in which people tended to look and listen and explore rather more intently than most of us do today – our loss.

Mrs Delany Her Circle, edited by Mark Laird and Alica Weisberg-Roberts, is published by Yale University Press, £40