IT is hardly possible to praise Mary Delany's flower mosaics too lavishly - her ``collages'' as they are called today. I prefer her own term, ``mosaicks,'' which has a richer connotation, turning the mind to Ravenna and that art which was both so demanding and enduring. It is usually agreed that the 18th century in Europe was a period in which art, fine manners, sensibility, and taste were in the ascendent - it was a time of distinction, courage, and creativity. A few epochs in human history are singled out in this way: the fifth century before Christ for its religions and philosophies, its literature, and great individuals; the 13th and 14th when Dante and Plutarch flourished, leading the way to the Renaissance; and in China the Sung Dynasty, for its marvelous art. This does not add up to many years, considering the confusion and brutishness of so much of time, and one likes to dwell on the accomplishments of the 18th century in England and France as a prelude to the years which were to come.
Mrs. Delany was born in 1700 and continued an active career till 1788. A lady of fashion, she was also a person of great energy who never wasted time. She sketched and painted, cut paper silhouettes, embroidered, wrote sprightly and informative letters, and made her mosaics - all these things she did superlatively well. She was, besides, of an exemplary character, pious and tender, possessing wit and sensibility.
The list of her activities is astonishing: She was one of the earliest botanists, and she loved shells so much that she used them in abundance in decoration of ceilings, walls, and objects - creating garlands and wreaths, some made to look like flowers. (In the 18th century this was a popular minor art.) She knew all the great world of England in her time, and many beyond its borders: She was a friend of Handel and of Linnaeus, she knew Gainsborough and was close to George III and Queen Charlotte, and she wrote of them all vividly, simply, and generously. Her letters are a mirror of her time and circle, full of detail, including careful descriptions of what people wore to great occasions.
For example, in 1760 when she was passing some time in Bath, she went to see some of Gainsborough's pictures, which particularly interested her, as she often made portraits of her friends. It was then an accepted canon of taste and breeding that a lady was not painted full-length and with a musical instrument unless she was ``fast.'' Gainsborough made this convention outmoded, often placing great ladies in a standing position and with an instrument in the picture. Mrs. Delany, sweet-natured and charitable as she was, was shocked to see at this collection a portrait of a Miss Ford, remarking, ``I should be very sorry to have anyone I loved set forth in such a manner.''
Though well-born (a Granville), she had no fortune, and when only 17 she was married off much against her will to a man more than three times her age. Heartbroken but brave, she sat by his bedside (for he was often ill) embroidering, cutting silhouettes, and painting - exercising those gifts that would one day bring her renown. After seven years she was free, but she did not remarry till she was 40. Then, against her family's wishes, she was united to an Irish clergyman, Delany, with whom she was very happy, and who fostered her talents in every way. They lived in Ireland, where she cultivated a lovely garden and maintained and enlarged her circle of friends.
When she was over 70 and once more alone, she began, apparently by chance, to make her flower ``mosaicks,'' continuing this work for another decade and collecting her pieces into scrapbooks, a hundred to a book, till they came to nearly a thousand pictures; today they are in the British Museum. Accurate, unique, beautiful, and pure, they are all marvelous.
To them she brought her knowledge of the infant science of botany, her sense of color (developed already in her embroidery), and her meticulous care. Sometimes a single part of a flower would contain as many as 200 tiny pieces of paper. One of her scissors was not as much as an inch in length; her paper she acquired from dyers and from sea captains on the China run. She pasted her subjects on a black ground. All over England people sent her exotic flowers, and rare specimens, including plants brought from abroad.
With her grasp of the art of living, she cultivated the virtue of contentment. Anyone who despairs of the human race would do well to study Mrs. Delany's life and career - she was not only an ornament to her own century but also remains an inspiration to ours.