Mary Delany was described on her memorial plaque as
a lady of singular ingenuity and politeness and an unaffected piety. These qualities endeared her through life to many noble and excellent persons and made the close of it illustrious by procuring for her many signal marks of grace and favour from their Majesties.
But whilst she was also a great painter, gardener, embroiderer and letter-writer; she is remembered mostly for her exquisite flower portraits rendered in paper collage, or ‘mosaicks’ as she called them.
She was widowed twice - the first from an arranged marriage at the tender age of 17 to a man of 60 who left her penniless when he died, and the second - happily - to a cleric who kept her waiting eleven years whilst he honourably married his betrothed and lived with her until her death (the fact that the fiancée was also rich may have been a consideration).
Her marriage to the Irish clergyman was happy and creative, they both shared a love of gardening, and he encouraged and supported her to paint and embroider. But it was not until she was in her seventies and alone again that she started to create her Flora Delanica, or Hortus Siccus, composed by cutting out tiny slivers of paper:
With the plant specimen set before her she cut minute particles of coloured paper to represent the petals, stamens, calyx, leaves, veins, stalk and other parts of the plant, and, using lighter and darker paper to form the shading, she stuck them on a black background. By placing one piece of paper upon another she sometimes built up several layers and in a complete picture there might be hundreds of pieces to form one plant. It is thought she first dissected each plant so that she might examine it carefully for accurate portrayal...
Her initials were placed in the corner of each picture, cut from paper in one piece, and notes were written on the underside of the pictures which are of historical and social value, recording for example, plants that were being introduced from abroad and successfully grown in hot houses.
Mary Delany also enjoyed a close friendship with the Duchess of Portland, and they shared a delight in gardens, flowers and ‘botanising’. She stayed with her frequently at Bulstrode in Buckinghamshire and was encouraged to pursue her passion (which she described as ‘a new way of imitating flowers’) by her friend and other acquaintances such as Sir Joseph Banks, the director of Kew Gardens and Philip Miller, chief gardener at Chelsea Physic Garden. Her fame spread, and in 1776 King George III and Queen Charlotte visited for tea and to view the Hortus Siccus. They remained friends and patrons for the rest of her life, even providing her with a home in Windsor and a pension.
Mary Delany’s skill and attention to detail made the flower creations botanically accurate but also works of art, which in Horace Walpole’s words were: ‘precision and truth unparalleled’. They are still a wonder to look at today (many can be viewed by appointment at The British Museum).