Delany Exhibition Is Here!

Posted in catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on September 25, 2009

The highly anticipated Delany show opened earlier this week. Mark Laird (Harvard University) kicked things off on Wednesday with a talk on Delany as “A Lady of Singular Ingenuity.” Alicia Weisberg-Roberts will speak on October 7 (see below for programming details). The following description is drawn from the press release from the Yale Center for British Art:

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Mary Delany: Mrs. Delany and Her Circle
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 24 September 2009 — 3 January 2010

Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, 19 February — 1 May 2010

Curated by Alicia Weisberg-Roberts and Mark Laird


Mark Laird and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 416 pages, ISBN-10: 030014279X

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, at the Yale Center for British Art, is 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’s tools from needlework pocket-book, given by Queen Charlotte to Mrs. Delany, 1781, satin, colored silks, and enamelled gold (The Royal Collection)

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 allows visitors to understand the garment as a whole and explains the equally interesting story of its survival. Also on view will be embroideries by Mrs. Delany and her circle that demonstrate the importance of the art of the needle to eighteenth-century female society.

Mary Delany, Pancratium maritinum, 1778, collage of colored papers, with bodycolor and watercolor on black ink background, British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, © Trustees of the British Museum

Mary Delany, Pancratium maritinum, 1778, collage of colored papers, with bodycolor and watercolor on black ink background, British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, © Trustees of the British Museum

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. 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.

Mrs. Delany and her Circle has been organized by the Yale Center for British Art and Sir John Soane’s Museum, London (where it will be on display from 18 February — 1 May 2010). The curators are Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, Assistant Curator of 18th- and 19th-Century Art, Walters Art Museum, and Mark Laird, Senior Lecturer, Department of Landscape Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design. Elisabeth Fairman, Senior Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Center, has served as the organizing curator for Jane Wildgoose’s installation, Promiscuous Assemblage. New Haven is the only North American venue for the exhibition.

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Tuesday, September 29, 12:30 pm

Mary Delany: A Woman Begins Her Life’s Work at the Age of 72

A thirty-minute gallery talk led by Molly Peacock, poet and non-fiction author.

Wednesday, September 30, 5:30 pm

Musical Tastes in Eighteenth-Century London as Seen by Mrs. Mary Delany, Horace Walpole, and Their Friends

Lecture and performance by Nicholas McGegan, renowned baroque music specialist and conductor.

Tuesday, October 6, 12:30 pm

Mrs. Delany’s Flowers: Entrance

A thirty-minute gallery talk led by Jason Siebenmorgen, landscape architect

Wednesday, October 7, 5:30 pm

‘She who bless’d the friend and grac’d the page’: Friendship and Self-fashioning in Mrs. Delany’s Circle

Lecture by Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, Assistant Curator of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth- Century Art, The Walters Art Museum

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