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The Northern Ireland clergyman's wife who became a celebrated botanical artist and friend of royalty

A beautiful new book charts the life of Mrs Delany, who enjoyed a happy marriage to Patrick, the Dean of Co Down. The author, Clarissa Campbell Orr, who herself has family links to Belfast, talks to Una Brankin about this remarkable lady of the 18th century

Ulster link: Mount Panther
Ulster link: Mount Panther
Lasting memorial: a marble bust of Mrs Delany’s husband, Patrick, by John van Nost the Younger. Reproduced by kind permission from the board of Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin
The book cover

Not many would see beauty in a discarded piece of tissue paper, but the genteel 18th century widow Mary Granville Delany had a very special eye.

The crumpled red pulp on her bedside table so reminded her of a geranium that she was inspired to create a whole new art form. At the age of 72, the former wife of the Dean of Down got to work creating an extraordinary series of paper collages of flowers, most of which are housed in the British Museum in London.

Several of these exquisite artworks are featured in a comprehensive new biography, Mrs Delany - A Life, by the royal historian Clarissa Campbell Orr, who portrays a woman of great charm and wisdom. A niece of a peer and friend of the writer Jonathan Swift, the composer Handel and the Methodist leader John Wesley, Mrs Delany was also a cherished confidante of King George III and Queen Charlotte.

But her high social standing didn't preclude Mrs Delany from mixing with her second husband's poor parishioners in Downpatrick and its hinterlands in the 1740s, when the couple took up residence at Mount Panther, known for two centuries as one of the finest properties in Co Down. (Noted for its intricate plasterwork in the ballroom and drawing rooms, the mansion survived until the 1960s but is now a ruin.)

As wife of Dean Patrick Delany, Mary had an important role to play in helping to keep his flock loyal to the Church of Ireland and away from any notions of converting to Catholicism in the wake of the Jacobite and French uprisings.

"Mary didn't have a particular thing about Catholics - some of her family held pro-Catholic sentiments, which was a lifelong burden to her - but she shared the suspicion of them at the time," says Clarissa Campbell Orr. "Catholics were a bit of a problem - it was widely felt that they weren't loyal to the monarch, that they obeyed the Pope instead.

"The Presbyterians were troublesome too, in that they encouraged the non-payment of tithes to the Church of Ireland. The Protestant Anglo Irish ascendancy made up only 10% of the population in Ireland as a whole and it was very important to the dean and Mary to keep them in the fold. That meant visiting as many of their homes as possible and Mary was shocked at how neglected the parishioners were by the previous dean.

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A portrait of Mary Delany when she was still the single widow of Alexander Pendarves
A portrait of Mary Delany when she was still the single widow of Alexander Pendarves

"She was told they never saw a clergyman unless they went to church."

Mary was also shocked to learn Ireland had no Poor Law and therefore no parish-based poor relief. She set about sewing clothes for the "poor naked wretches" of the parish and hosted lunches for the townspeople in Downpatrick, between Sunday church services.

"She had recognised that if you married a clergyman, you were part of team and you had a public role," says Clarissa. "She wanted to help the parishioners feel recognised and supported.

"Compared to Dublin (where the dean taught at Trinity College), the second city of Britain at the time, she found the north of Ireland to be provincial but she was a very good networker and had access to culture through the landowners she visited.

"She was a very well-read person and she was determined to be more than some Lady Bountiful character. She had no choice when she was married off, at 17, to the 60-year-old MP Alexander Pandarves to help the family finances, but she enjoyed the freedom her widowhood bestowed on her when he died, seven years later.

"She was 44 when she married Patrick Delany and it was a love match. They were very compatible and he was deeply fond of her."

Fine art: A selection of Mary Delany’s paintings and illustrations as they appear in the new book by Clarissa Campbell Orr. The images are copyright of the trustees of the British Museum
Fine art: A selection of Mary Delany’s paintings and illustrations as they appear in the new book by Clarissa Campbell Orr. The images are copyright of the trustees of the British Museum

Both the dean and Mrs Delany loved the lush Co Down landscape. Patrick was a dedicated gardener and much influenced by the garden designs of his close friend, the poet Alexander Pope. He and Mary enjoyed walking in the woods near Mount Panther and created several pathways there.

A gifted artist in oil and watercolour, Mary's interest in drawing and painting intensified during her 25 years in Ireland. Her husband's love of gardens inspired her to apply herself to refining her talent.

Accomplished in many fields, including shell artwork, Mary was also a skilled needlewoman with a flair for embroidery. She designed beautiful patterns for royal court dresses and helped revitalise the Irish linen industry by encouraging her rich English friends to buy Irish cloth.

One of her bedspread designs, featuring intricate white knotting and floral patterns, hangs in the Ulster Museum.

"She designed the bed cover for the son of her friends, the Sandfords," Clarissa explains. "She never had children but she took her role as godmother very seriously, especially when her goddaughter had four children of her own. She was very good at educating and amusing them - she cut out miniature animal figures in paper for them.

"She wasn't interested in bearing children. Pregnancy was a big risk in those days - you might end up dead. She thought it safer to be motherly, rather than a mother."

After 25 years of marriage, most of it spent in Ireland, Dean Delany died in Bath in May 1768 at the age of 84. Mrs Delany found herself a widow again, at 68. She spent her final years in Windsor, in a house given to her by King George, where she pursued her interest in botany. Along with her friend Margaret Bentinck, Dowager Duchess of Portand, she often went out to look for specimens and became acquainted with two well-known botanists of the time, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.

Her passion for botany and art merged with exquisite results in the autumn of 1772. "I have invented a new way of imitating flowers," she wrote to her niece.

The collages she created are precise and detailed collages, made from coloured paper, much of which she had dyed herself. The works were then mounted on black backgrounds, to dramatic effect.

Fine art: A selection of Mary Delany’s paintings and illustrations as they appear in the new book by Clarissa Campbell Orr. The images are copyright of the trustees of the British Museum
Fine art: A selection of Mary Delany’s paintings and illustrations as they appear in the new book by Clarissa Campbell Orr. The images are copyright of the trustees of the British Museum

At 72, Mary Delany was starting out in her new role as a botanical artist. Ten years later, a portrait of her painted by John Opie was hung in the Royal Collection. She completed almost 1,000 collages before her eyesight began to fail her.

As Clarissa Campbell Orr notes, she gave up her work with a touching poem of farewell: 'I can no more/The vegetable world explore; No more with rapture cull each flower/That paints the mead, or twines the bower.'

She died in London, a month short of her 89th birthday, leaving behind a wealth of correspondence and journals which have been parsed in previous biographies. Clarissa Campbell Orr's interest in Mrs Delany was sparked when she was putting together an exhibition in 2005. She spent 10 years putting together the biography, between teaching at Cambridge University and St Mary's University, Twickenham.

"I was aware of her as a Bluestocking and I knew of her connections to the royal court, and I drew on some of her wonderful, very well written letters for the exhibition," says Clarissa, whose paternal grandfather was a Belfast-born engineer who moved to Liverpool.

"There were so many facets to her life. She develops from a young woman at the heart of elite circles, to a beloved godmother and celebrated botanical artist.

"Some may find Mary's constant busyness to be neurotic but, as she would have said, it was better than being depressed," her biographer concludes. "She was very self-disciplined and never complained. She did everything thoroughly and she was such fun company.

Author Clarissa Campbell Orr
Author Clarissa Campbell Orr

"I do hope readers will enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed writing it. You really can't help but enjoy her company."

  • Mrs Delany - A Life, by Clarissa Campbell Orr is published by Yale University Press, £30
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The book cover

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