MizLoo, January 1, 2012 (view all comments by MizLoo)
Author Molly Peacock is a poet; her language is varied, sensuous and rich with meaning. Her understanding of the artistic process informs her biography of Mary Delaney, a woman whose early life, uncertain and tenuous as it was, still displayed artistic leanings and sensibility. Delaney was married off at 16 to an alcoholic of 60 something, leading to years of Dickensian unpleasantness. During her lengthy time as a (relieved) widow, she sewed fabulous fabrics into dresses decorated with floral motifs, hoping to obtain a place at the court of George III. The modest inheritance that sustained her widowhood offered her an independence rare to women of her background and she maintained that independence despite despite the courtship of several prominent men. In late middle age, she married intemperately, but happily, only to be widowed again. In retirement, at 72, she noticed that a piece of art paper was the exact color of a flower in the garden, and set about reproducing that flower in layers of paper. The ultimate result was the "Flora Delanica," a collection, still preserved in the British Museum, of nearly 1000 different flowers, accurately and precisely reproduced in layers of colored paper.
Peacock describes Delaney's life and work elegantly, with precision and care, interspersing moments in her own life as an artist in words in ways that illuminate the triumphs and sorrows of both women. I have never read a biography anything like this one. It was an engrossing page-turner, a sensitive exploration of artistic effort, an insightful evocation of women's choices and the limits of those choices in two vastly different eras. It was the best work of non-fiction in the more than 150 books I read in 2011.
In 1772, upon the death of her second husband, Mary Delany arose from her grief, picked up a pair of scissors, and, at the age of seventy-two, created a new art form: mixed-media collage. Over the next decade, Mrs. Delany produced an astonishing 985 botanically correct, breathtaking cut-paper flowers, now housed in the British Museum and referred to as the Flora Delanica. As she tracks the extraordinary life of Delany—friend of George Frideric Handel and Jonathan Swift—internationally acclaimed poet Molly Peacock weaves in delicate parallels in her own life and, in doing so, creates a profound and beautiful examination of the nature of creativity and art. This gorgeously designed book, featuring thirty-five full-color illustrations, is to be devoured as voraciously as one of the court dinners it describes.
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