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A Bouquet of Botanical Delights: The Life and Art of Mary Delany at the Yale Center for British Art
Mark Laird, Reconstruction of an auricula theatre, 1996, watercolor, Collection of Mark Laird.
NEW HAVEN, CT.- At the age of seventy-two, Mary Delany, née Mary Granville (1700–1788), a botanical artist, woman of fashion, and commentator on life and society in eighteenth-century England and Ireland, embarked on a series of one thousand botanical collages, or “paper mosaics.” These were the crowning achievement of a life defined by creative accomplishment. The delicate hand-cut floral designs, made by a method of Mrs. Delany’s own invention, rival the finest botanical works of her time.

An ambitious exhibition "Mrs. Delany and her Circle" opening September 24 at the Yale Center for British Art, will be the first to survey the full range of Mary Delany’s creative endeavors, revealing the complexity of her engagement with natural science, art, and design. Her prolific craft activities served to cement bonds of friendship and allowed her to negotiate the interlinked artistic, aristocratic, and scientific networks that defined her social world. A range of approximately 130 objects, including drawings, collages, embroidered textiles, shells, botanical specimens, and manuscripts related to her interest in landscape gardening, will reflect the variety of her activities. The exhibition will also feature a floral display inspired by Mrs. Delany’s designs, as well as a site-specific installation by London-based artist Jane Wildgoose. "Mrs. Delany and her Circle" has been co-organized by the Yale Center for British Art and Sir John Soane’s Museum. The Center is the only North American venue for the exhibition.

While Mrs. Delany is best known for her botanical collages, she created bold new garden designs, decorated her home and garden with shell decoupage, fashioned paper silhouettes, and was an accomplished embroiderer who produced elaborate designs for dresses and furnishings. The exhibition will reunite a significant number of Mrs. Delany’s textiles. Among her most extraordinary designs was a court dress embroidered with a cascade of naturalistic flowers on black satin, ca. 1739–40. This garment was disassembled and preserved by Mrs. Delany’s heirs and represents a marriage of art and nature that vividly foreshadows her later accomplishments. Pieces of the dress, reunited here for the first time, will be accompanied by didactic material that will allow visitors to understand the garment as a whole and will explain the equally interesting story of its survival. Also on view will be embroideries by Mrs. Delany and her circle that will demonstrate the importance of the art of the needle to eighteenth-century female society.

The exhibition will show thirty of Mrs. Delany’s “paper mosaics,” generously lent by the British Museum, which houses nearly one thousand of her works. Unlike most botanical illustrations, these collages were created from hundreds of tiny pieces of cut paper. Horace Walpole called them “precision and truth unparalleled,” and Sir Joshua Reynolds admired their “perfection and outline, delicacy of cutting, accuracy of shading and perspective, and harmony and brilliance of color” (Ruth Hayden, Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers, London: British Museum Press 2000).

Through comparison with the works of her contemporaries the exhibition will explore the context of Mrs. Delany’s striking collages and the relationship between her close attention to the natural world and the visual culture of natural history. "Mrs. Delany and her Circle" will feature works by professional botanical artists, including Georg Dionysius Ehret and Barbara Regina Dietzsch, as well as amateur botanical artists such as Mary Capel Forbes. Also on view will be objects representing the wider world of eighteenth-century collecting and classifying, ranging from mineralogy to conchology (the study of shells). Through drawings, maps, and topographical paintings, the exhibition will evoke the design and experience of gardens Mrs. Delany knew well, including those at Kew and Bulstrode, the remarkable estate of Margaret Cavendish Holles Harley Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715–1785), with whom Mrs. Delany lived and worked. The Duchess was one of the most important collectors of naturalia of the eighteenth century. Their friendship was one of the defining relationships of Mary Delany’s life.

Horace Walpole, an influential eighteenth-century antiquarian and man of letters, was another friend and correspondent of Mrs. Delany. Walpole owned one of Mrs. Delany’s collages and designed the frame for the portrait by John Opie that opens Mrs. Delany and her Circle. This portrait forms a hinge between Mrs. Delany and her Circle and Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, an exhibition also on view this fall at the Yale Center for British Art. Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill will analyze the history and reception of Walpole’s collections as he assembled and displayed them at Strawberry Hill, his Gothic Revival house at Twickenham. Together, these two exhibitions and the captivating personalities they illuminate will vividly reveal the brilliance and variety of eighteenth-century life.

Yale Center for British Art | Mary Delany | Botanical Works |


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