Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

An Eighteenth-Century Woman

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

An Eighteenth-Century Woman

Article excerpt

Lately I've found myself spending quite a bit of time in the 18th century, beginning in 2007 with the tercentenary of Carol Linnaeus's birth (Uddenberg, 2007). Then I read a little book with the rather interesting title Sex, Botany, and Empire (Fara, 2003). It's about how the activities of Linnaeus and Joseph Banks changed the way the world saw plants. Linnaeus (1707-1778), who created the fundamental principles of our system of classification, used the sexual organs of plants as the basis for ordering them. Banks, who traveled on the first of Captain James Cook's voyages around the world, went on to emphasize the importance of the plants to the economic and territorial conquest of the world by the British. More recent books have fanned the flames of my interest in Banks and others of this era. Richard Holmes's (2008) The Age of Wonder, a study of science in the development of British romanticism, has Joseph Banks as one of its main subjects, and Andrea Wulf's (2008) The Brother Gardeners deals not only with Banks but with such American figures as John Bartram and Benjamin Franklin.

But it was a lesser-known yet intriguing figure who really made me linger in the 18th century: Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, better known simply as Mrs. Delany. She was born in 1700 and died in 1788, so she really is an 18th-century woman, and she knew many of the leading scientific figures of the day, either personally or through their work. She has been receiving quite a bit of attention lately because of a beautiful exhibit, "Mrs. Delany and Her Circle," at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA). I've had a fascination with Mary Delany for some time, so I decided it was worth a trip to New Haven to learn more about her and, most of all, to see her work.

By "work," I mean several things. Delany did a great deal of drawing and also shell work, which was popular at the time: decorating ceramic pieces, niches, and even grottos with a variety of sea shells. However, Delany is better known for two other crafts. First, there is her embroidery. She was presented to the British court early in 1741 in a black silk gown embroidered with 200 different flowers, stitched with great detail and accuracy. Other pieces of her handiwork indicate that she was a master needlewoman, but it's thought that the dress was the work of professionals--just the extent of the job would have made it difficult for one person to create it and live long enough to wear it. There are sketches of the flowers firmly attributed to Delany, so at the very least she was responsible for the design (Laird & Weisberg-Roberts, 2009).

I had seen pictures of portions of the dress in a biography written by Delany's descendent, Ruth Hayden (1993). It was exciting to finally see these pieces and others in person. The dress was cut up in the 19th century and divided among a number of relatives. Obviously some of them did a better job of preservation than others. One large piece looks perfect, with the silk embroidery richly colored. The flowers are almost presented as botanical illustrations--they are that detailed and the coloring that nuanced. Other pieces are literally pale by comparison, having faded considerably. I do a little embroidery, so I was fascinated by the work as an indication of just what is possible with thread painting--but don't expect me to be ready for presentation to the Queen any time soon.

Though accomplished, none of the work I've mentioned so far would rate an exhibit at Yale; rather it is Mary Delany's paper cutouts depicting flowers that have made her at least a minor star in the world of botanical art. When she was 72, she began to create botanical illustrations by cutting out colored pieces of paper and gluing them to a background, usually black. Over the next 10 years, she created about 1,000 of these works, which are exquisitely detailed and accurate. Early in this enterprise, she used watercolor and gouache to add realistic touches to the cut paper pieces, but as she became more skilled in this medium she relied less and less on these embellishments--the paper pieces were so small and detailed that they said it all. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.