A portrait of Mary Delany in her later years.

Mary Delany

Mary Delany intro text

Mary Delany (née Granville 1700–1788) lived in England and Ireland.

In her 70s, Delany invented a form of paper-cutting or decoupage, which she called her "paper mosaiks" and created 985 of these intricate illustrations of botanical specimens. Most of her work was donated to the British Museum by her great-niece, Augusta Hall, Baroness Llanover in 1897.

Early years

The young Mary Granville was brought up for life at court: well educated, she spoke several languages and was a skilled artist, musician and embroiderer. A change in the Granville family's circumstances led to an arranged marriage with the much older Alexander Pendarves when Mary was 17. When she was widowed eight years later, Mary's strong and spirited personality won her many influential friends at court. 

Paper Mosaick

When she was 32, the widowed Mrs Pendarves met the Irish cleric Patrick Delany and they married 11 years later moving to Dublin where he became Dean of Down. Delany set about improving the house and gardens and focused on her shell-work, fine needlework, drawing and painting.

Following her husband's death in 1768, Delany returned to England and became a companion to her long-time close friend, the Duchess of Portland. Delany spent summers at the Duchess' home of Bulstrode, Buckinghamshire, improving the gardens, as well as collecting shells and botanical specimens.

Paper Mosaick

The botanical artist George Dionysius Ehret, Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander – a pupil of Linnaeus and British Museum curator – were frequent visitors. Around 1771, after visiting Bank's extensive collection of botanical specimens, Delany began work on her celebrated Flora Delanica – not a herbarium of dried plants but a florilegium of images of flowers made of tiny pieces of coloured cut paper.

Sourcing tissue and papers of all hues and shades, Delany was able to spontaneously cut the wafer-thin tissue without any drawings or apparent planning. She pasted the cut-outs of the intricate parts of the flowers collage-fashion onto black paper to create perfect reproductions of living plants.

Exquisitely beautiful, Delany's work was also valued for its scientific accuracy. Every collage includes a label with the plant's Linnaean and common names, and on the back of each work, Delany noted the date and place the collage was created, the name of the specimen's donor, and a collection number. In his Anecdotes, Horace Walpole commented that Delany was 'a lady of excellent sense and taste, who painted in oil, and who invented the art of paper mosaic'.

Paper Mosaick

Creating about 100 pages per year, Delany had produced nearly one thousand examples by 1784 when failing eyesight compelled her to abandon the project.

When her companion the Duchess of Portland died the following year, George III granted Delany a house at Windsor and a handsome pension until her death in 1788. Delany's memorial in St James' Piccadilly names her as 'a lady of singular ingenuity and politeness'.

The Delany collages are now in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. They were bequeathed in 1897 by Delany's great-niece Augusta Hall, Baroness Llanover, who had earlier edited her autobiography and correspondence.

Two examples of Delany's paper mosaics are on display in Room 1 (the Enlightenment Gallery) which are changed every few months.

Mary Delany's work can also be seen in The Royal Collection, the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin and the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, USA.

Further reading

  • Clarissa Campbell Orr, Mrs Delany – A Life (Yale University Press, 2019)
  • Mary Delany, The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs Delany (Richard Bentley, 18611862)
  • Ruth Hayden, Mrs Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers (British Museum Press, 1980, 1996)
  • Mark Laird and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, Mrs Delany and Her Circle (Yale University Press, 2009)
  • Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany Begins her Life's Work at 72 (Bloomsbury, 2011)