On Mrs. Delaney, mosaicks and mistakes

Acknowledge the past / As lessons exquisitely crafted  ~ Vienna Teng


Rosa gallica by Mary Delaney | The British Museum

I’ve spent the last few days lost in the art of Mrs. Mary Delaney, an 18th-century lady who invented a unique art form, what she called “flower mosaicks”—botanically correct representations of flowers made of bits and slivers of painted paper, cut out by hand and glued onto black backings.  The mosaicks are still preserved at the British Museum, and if you can’t go to see them in person, you can view them online, which is what I’ve been doing. The works are mesmerizing in their painstaking detail, the minuteness of their parts.

Mrs. Delaney’s life is as fascinating as her art. Married off to save the family fortunes when she was 17 to a 60-year-old man, widowed seven years later, she finally married for love at 43. She wasn’t wealthy so much as well-connected, and had the good fortune to be exposed to literary and artistic minds all her life. She practiced all the genteel arts of her time, even designed her own clothes, when finally, as a widow in her seventies, she noticed that a piece of red paper exactly matched the colour of a geranium petal, and with what her biographer Mary Peacock calls “that vital imaginative connection” started the first of the thousand works that comprise her Flora delanica.

“It’s nearly impossible to see the shape of your life as you are living it,” writes Peacock, “swimming through the bobbing detritus of every day. But occasionally events scissor your living into a shape, and you feel it sharply.”

I’ve been mulling over an essay I’m trying to write about mistakes, and for weeks I’ve been asking people: What’s your take on mistakes? Do they have any value? What have you learned from yours?

So far everyone agrees that mistakes are indeed valuable, even necessary for personal growth. Only one friend has said that she finds the adage “learn from your mistakes” unsatisfactory, a trite dismissal of somebody else’s personal, painful, and perhaps damaging experience. “Sometimes it’s not so easy to see what you could possibly learn from all that mess,” she muses.

So that line from Mrs. Delaney’s biography, about an event scissoring your life into shape, gave me pause. Could this be an apt description for what mistakes do to our lives: give them shape, if we just had the wit to see it? Sometimes it takes years, but could we hold out for some kind of realization to break through one day, an a-ha! moment when suddenly we see that something good has come out of the stupid things we’ve done?

We’ll never know what Mrs. Delaney would have called her mistakes. We can only follow the thread of her life, pick out a plot point here and there, and say, “Perhaps this was a mistake, and that one.” Rejecting the suitor she had at 15—was that a decision she ever regretted? Agreeing to marry a loathsome man old enough to be her grandfather: surely she bitterly regretted that. All the twists and turns a life can take, the tantalizing what-ifs, until one day she finds herself an old lady, widowed again, and shaken out of sadness by a piece of paper and a flower petal.

“It is a privilege to have, somewhere inside you, a capacity for making something speak from your own seared experience,” Molly Peacock observes. And so it was with Mrs. Delaney. Into her delicate and intricate mosaicks she poured not just her artistic ability and passion for detail, but also the richness of her character, her iron discipline, and all of her complex, nuanced past. Studying her works, studying her, maybe we too can even dare to hope, not just for clarity, but for beauty to emerge from the “bobbing detritus” caused by the shipwrecks of our lives.


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