A Cultivated Conversation with Molly Peacock
Above: Mary Delany's botanical illustrations. Passiflora laurifolia; Crinum zeylanicum; Physalis. © Trustees of the British Museum.
On October 1, the Barnes Foundation welcomed writers, artists, gardeners and designers to Cultivating Passion, a symposium celebrating 75 years of horticulture education at the Barnes Arboretum. Nicole Juday, head of educational programming for the Arboretum, kindly invited us to enjoy inspiring presentations from landscape designers, sculptors, garden photographers, and many more. The final speaker of the day was poet and author Molly Peacock, who shared the fascinating story of Mary Delany (1700-1788), artist of the botanical illustrations above.
In her book The Paper Garden, Molly explores Mrs. Delany's "late blooming" creation of nearly 1,000 innovative botanical collages, intricately snipped from tiny, hand-dyed pieces of colored paper and natural materials. A prolific correspondent and contemporary of Enlightenment thinkers including Jonathan Swift and American botanist John Bartram, Mrs. Delany began making her collages at age 72, traveling across England to find unusual plants and receiving specimens from around the world. Before the symposium, we caught up with Molly to chat about Mrs. Delany, natural inspiration, and the subject of her next nonfiction work. Read on for our conversation, or plan a visit to the Barnes Foundation and Arboretum.
terrain: Can you tell us a bit about your writing? Where do you find inspiration?
Molly: I find my inspiration from the lives of women in the past who were deeply creative but not known to us now. I relish resuscitating their reputations! Like those women, I am inspired by plants, gardens, botany, and the natural world. They experienced a purer natural world than we do, and when I fall into the past, I escape from the environmental problems in nature today.
terrain: Where did your interest in Mrs. Delany begin?
Molly: I first saw Mrs. Delany’s work at the Morgan Library in New York City, in 1986. I could not believe how complex and spectacular her botanical collages were. But I was a young teacher, and the British catalog accompanying the show was so expensive that I passed it by. Mrs. Delany lodged deep in my memory as I went on to other things, like writing poetry and falling in love. Twenty years later, I was waiting for my husband (a high school boyfriend I reconnected with) to finish a phone call in the lobby of the British Museum. I walked into the gift shop and wandered all the way to the last table. There was the book I couldn’t afford in 1986! I bought it, of course, and instantly reconnected with Mrs. Delany. She, too, had a marvelous midlife marriage that encouraged creativity.
terrain: What were some of your most intriguing discoveries in the course of researching her life and work?
Molly: I discovered that some things in life take living long enough to do. Mrs. Delany invented botanical collage at the age of 72, grief-stricken at the loss of her husband, while staying with a dear friend who shared her interest in flowers. How did she do it? A whole lifetime of her interests and talents came together at a single moment: the fact that she painted, wrote music, wrote a memoir and letters, cut silhouettes, designed clothes with floral motifs on black backgrounds, and most of all, designed her garden with her husband. The best research I did was to find a secret image hidden in one of her collages: the tendrils of her Everlasting Pea are shaped into a pair of scissors, the implement she used to invent a brand-new art form.
terrain: What are some of your favorite works of art from Mrs. Delany?
Molly: Her Passiflora laurifolia (Passion Flower), which appeared on materials for the Barnes symposium. Then, her Lathyrus latifolius (Everlasting Pea), for the secret of the scissors. Last, her incredible Papaver somniferoum (Opium Poppy) for its contemporary look and luxurious reds.
terrain: How do your nonfiction works and poetry interact with one another? Does the natural world influence your writing?
Molly: Few poets are also biographers, but since I use my personal experiences in my poetry and I’ve always been curious about the shapes of people’s lives, for me poetry and nonfiction mesh. As I matured as a poet, I realized that there is poetry in the lived life. It was easy to take metaphor into the creative lives of women artists like myself. The natural world influences all my writing. My grandmother was a wonderful country gardener; she walked me around on summer evenings and had me name the plants. Naming is the basis of poetry. Also, flowers are at the root of my biographies. My new book is about an obscure but spectacular flower and garden painter from Philadelphia: Mary Hiester Reid.