The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

23rd May 2011

**UPDATE** Giveaway over. Using, number one commenter, Yvette, won! Congrats. I have sent an email to you to get your address. Thanks to all who left comments!

I can[not] conceive of how a person can process the material of a life, and by that I mean love and death and every insect bite in between, without practicing an art.

The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock is and isn’t a biography of a woman, Mary Delaney. What it is about is the quote above, about making art in the everyday, about life itself being a work of art.

As a young girl, Mary Granville is married off to a much older man. She is unhappy; he is a jealous (but wealthy) drunk who dies, leaving Mary to blossom in the independence of widowhood. She is unwilling to take another husband until Dr. Patrick Delaney proposes many years later. He is of low birth; her family does not approve, but Mary knows her heart, and as Peacock writes, Patrick encourages her craft: “She became his brilliant focus – and he became her vista, the expansive background that his generosity of spirit provided.”

The subtitle, though, is misleading for two reasons: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72. First, as I mentioned, this book is and is not a biography because Peacock inserts herself into the writing, tracing the origins and processes of her research. To be frank, I could have done without this aspect of the book, but let me get that out of the way now because I adored this book. Second, I would argue Mrs. Delaney is an artist from a young age, designing dresses, embroidering, painting, even letter writing extensively (though Peacock is referring to the work for which Delaney is remembered).

Mary’s artistic endeavors remain in these areas for most of her life, but in 1772, “she noticed how a piece of colored paper matched the dropped petal of a geranium. After making that vital imaginative connection between paper and petal …. she began … carefully cutting the exact geranium petal shape from the scarlet paper. Then she snipped out another.”

To me, the magic of this book is in moments like this. What is Mrs. Delaney hadn’t snipped a second petal? Peacock deftly extricates the moments in Mrs. Delaney’s life she wants to highlight, and in the same breath, she reflects on the creative process.

For example, each of Mrs. Delaney’s collages is cut paper on top of a black background, like so, and Peacock observes:

But whatever the composition of the dry crystals she ground … its source is something burnt …. Is being burnt a requisite for the making of art? …. It is a privilege to have, somewhere within you, a capacity for making something speak from your own seared experience.

And, noting Mary’s copious notes and letters to and from her sister, Anne:

In a way, Mary’s letters to Anne are a paper mosaick of days and weeks, hundreds into the thousands of sentences cut in organic shapes to form the art of living.

And aren’t her letters art? As Peacock points out to a friend who asked why Mary Delaney “really” made these mosaicks:

It evolved, first from silhouettes, and then from handiwork and collecting shells … and then from drawing and painting and gardening….and lastly from not being able to paint, from a feeling of the world dimming…

And from the last page, referring to the artistic spark when Mrs. Delaney spies the geranium petal:

Her whole life flowed to the place where she plucked that moment.

Isn’t that an incredibly beautiful thought?

jenn aka the picky girl

P.S. Thanks to TLC Book Tours and specifically Lisa Munley for seeking me out for this tour. Lisa, you were dead on with this recommendation.

P.P.S. If you would like to enter for a chance to win a copy of this gorgeous book, please leave a comment below (by June 1) and answer this question: What is artistic and beautiful in your own life?

  • I am adding this book title to my TBR list, Picky Girl. Damn you. I don’t have enough to read? HA! What a wonderful review. I loved reading it. I don’t know anything about this artist, but I’m about to learn, thanks to you.

    Wouldn’t mind winning a copy of the book. Here’s my response to the question – What is artistic and beautiful in your own life?

    My own watercolors I suppose would be a good answer. But since my bout with breast cancer a couple of years ago, I haven’t done as much work as I would have liked and lately I haven’t done much. I have days when I’m still just too tired to do much creatively. What is beautiful in my own life at the moment is my gorgeous granddaughter who is a year old today.

    But I don’t suppose that really is an answer to the question.

    In my work area, where I blog and fiddle around with ideas and bits of writing, I keep a collection of little objects (‘smalls’ they’re called in the antiques and collectibles trade)which have no value to anyone but myself. Just by the very incongruity of their presence they always make me smile. They lift my spirits. They overlook me while I’m working at the computer – tiny rabbits and gremlins and antique wood blocks and finger puppets and six of Snow White’s seven dwarfs and beach shells and some pint sized robots and my daughter’s name spelled out in colorful wooden letters and a Seminole doll and dogs and Disney characters – my favorite Captain Hook, and best of all, The Camel With The Wrinkled Knees from the Raggedy Ann books…There’s more, but you get the idea. My whole living room/work room area could not belong to anyone but me. No one else could live here, it is THAT personally put together with various objects and collectibles and prints and flowers. This room is one way I keep art and beauty in my life.

    • pickygirl

      Yvette – I am so so sorry for such a late response. I didn’t have much computer access (or time) last week in New York. But you are too funny. I have started getting annoyed adding to my TBR as well, but you’ve added several for me, so it’s payback time.

      Thanks so much for the compliment. Looks like you’re the only one who wants to win it…. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Honestly, I think every bit of your response is an answer to the question. I certainly see my blog as an artistic endeavor in its own way. I also feel that way about my home. You walk in and KNOW it’s mine – every bit of it. I love love your answer and hope just taking a second to look at all the beauty and art in your life it lifted your energy a bit. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • This looks so interesting. I do love books that inspire us to know that you don’t have to have your career set in stone by the time you are 22. That we have time to make something of ourselves. Thanks for the review!

    • pickygirl

      Thank you for commenting! It really was interesting, and the more I got into it, the more I didn’t want it to end. Great book.

  • Artistic and beautiful? It will sound cheesy, but I love to watch my boyfriend cook. He knows so much about his ingredients – both their origins and how to prepare them in such a way that it makes my mouth water. The dishes that he prepares are works of art. And watching him, a man that does not demonstrate a whole lot of creativity in the rest of his life, work in the kitchen is a beautiful thing.

    This book sounds pretty great, by the way. Though, for some reason, the whole idea of paper flowers makes me think of V.C. Andrews. And it shouldn’t.

    • pickygirl

      V.C. Andrews? I only read a few in high school, and they scared the youknowwhat out of me.

      I would definitely say cooking is part of that. Putting a meal together, artfully, is certainly beautiful. I actually love having people in my kitchen and cooking. It’s such a personal thing.

  • That book looks so gorgeous on my computer, I can’t imagine what it’d be like to hold it in my hands.

    My artistic endeavor is collecting postcards from all over the world and making collages of them so I can visualize where I’ll travel in life. I’ve done this since I was little. Family and friends know to pick up postcards wherever they go and send them to me. When I do end up visiting those places, I’ll recreate the shots from the postcards but with me in them, tying the past to the present.

    • pickygirl

      Ooh, this is such a good one. I love that idea so much. I love to travel and try to find one really great thing to bring home to remember each place by.

      And, believe me, it’s so much prettier than you can imagine.

  • I was a dancer for 16 years, and although I don’t do it in an organized fashion any more, dancing and movement are artistic and beautiful in my life. I still love to dance when I have the house to myself, and I tend to noice the way people move and carry themselves. Or I notice the way trees and other things around my house move in the wind. So, I guess the short answer is movement.

    • pickygirl

      That’s excellent. I love love love to salsa dance and danced when I was young as well. In fact, I’m ready to go dancing!

  • Pingback: Molly Peacock, author of The Paper Garden, on tour May 2011 | TLC Book Tours()

  • HI Jenn, I discovered you from a visitor to my blog and am so delighted, and look forward to following for sure! I had used the exact same quote from Molly Peacock’s book – because as you say, that’s so much what the book is about and why it is so appealing. I did like Peacock’s tale also — found that little thread of searching for and incorporating art into everyday life very appealing appealing – and in Peacock’s life also. Best to you, happy reading, stay picky, Katy Gilmore