Visiting Mrs. Delany at the British Museum

A quick reply from the Superintendent of the Print Room at the British Museum advised me where to go: “the door is located just behind the Michelangelo cartoon” in Room 90 of the museum. (To visit you need only a form of identification and to know what you would like to see.)

There to see some of Mrs. Delany’s collages, I followed directions and rang the buzzer next to a wooden, glass-paneled door. A young man greeted me and led me to a little locker for my belongings, but let me keep my iPhone, a pencil, and a notebook.

The Study Room is beautiful, large and rectangular, lit by skylights overhead. It smells like paper – like a bookstore, but an older flavor. Only the clickety-click of computer keys and the occasional ring of an old-fashioned telephone interrupted the library hush. People with looks of concentration and focus (dissertation work? book research? curiosity?) sat at long wooden tables in front of easel-like structures (for propping works to view).

I filled out a request slip for a selection of Mrs. Delany’s “mosaicks,” and soon a Museum Assistant brought me a pair of white cotton gloves and a large, but thin, archival box. She told me I could pick up each of the 10 pieces (a sample – Mrs. D. made nearly 1,000), and instructed me to place them carefully atop one another when finished.

It thrilled me to see the depth and dimensionality of these paper collages in real life. The blossoms appear against always-black backgrounds, amazingly still vibrant after 200 years. It surprised me to see that each eight by twelve-inch piece of black paper is glued (apparently by Mrs. D.) to strips of gray paper – making an edging. No longer in albums, as they were when received from Mrs. Delany’s descendants in 1897, the Museum has inset the whole page into protective recessed mounts.

Sometimes the smallest pieces of a flower are paper, even the fine tiny bits of deeper color along the edges of leaves or veins. Paint sometimes makes shadows. Mrs. Delany signed with her initials and pasted a label with the flower’s botanical name to one side of the stem at the bottom. The first piece was a spirea – the leaves cut paper, but the tiny blossoms painted with white opaque paint we would call gouache (Mrs. Delany would have said “bodycolour”).

As I worked my way through the box, and then drew one of the Delany flowers on my iPhone, I thought about Molly Peacock visiting the Prints and Drawings Room to work on her book “The Paper Garden.” Back home, I reread the sections about her visits, and then began to reread the whole wonderful book. (I first wrote about it here.)

Peacock tells of finding by chance Ruth Hayden’s “Mrs Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers” in the Museum gift shop and reading it on the plane home. Hayden was the great, great, great, great, great, great, great niece of Mrs. Delany, and Peacock relates how Hayden came to write her book after countless visits to see the images, and she mingles Hayden’s story with that of Mrs. Delany’s – and her own – to inspire us.

Look at the world! Peacock says, “Observation of one thing leads to unobserved revelation of another.” And she says it again: “Direct examination leads to indirect epiphany.”

With the language and grace of the poet she is, Peacock articulates the importance of practicing an art to “process the material of a life” – and by that she means “love and death and every insect bite in between…”. In the book, Molly Peacock invites us to sort through our creative impulses and find the center of such work for ourselves.

4 thoughts on “Visiting Mrs. Delany at the British Museum

  1. I seem to remember an article about this somewhere — off to Google. But how wonderful that you were allowed to handle this!

  2. Pingback: Thinking of Mrs. Delany « her spirits rose…

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