Exhibit Showcases Work of 18th-Century Botanical Artist
At the age of 72, Mary Delaney began working on a series of 1,000 botanical collages, or “paper mosaics,” made from hundreds of tiny pieces of hand-cut paper. These delicate designs — said to rival the finest botanical works of her time — are among the creative endeavors by the 18th-century artist and commentator showcased in the exhibition “Mrs. Delaney and Her Circle,” opening on Thursday, Sept. 24, at the Yale Center for British Art.
The Yale museum will be the only North American venue for the exhibit, which is the first to survey the full range of the creative accomplishments of Delaney (1700-1788), a botanical artist, woman of fashion and commentator on the life and society of her time.
A floral display inspired by Delaney’s designs and a site-specific installation will highlight the show, which was co-organized by the Yale Center for British Art and Sir John Soane’s Museum in London.
Delany, née Mary Granville, was born into an aristocratic and well-connected family. She was a lifelong friend and supporter of the composer George Frederick Handel and the satirist Jonathan Swift, and later in life became an intimate of George III and Queen Charlotte. Another of her friends and correspondents was the influential man of letters Horace Walpole, who will be the focus of another exhibition opening at the Yale museum this fall.
Although best known for her botanical collages, Delaney created bold new garden designs, decorated her home and garden with shell decoupage, and fashioned paper silhouettes. She was also an accomplished embroiderer who produced elaborate designs for dresses and furnishings.
“Mrs. Delaney and Her Circle” will feature approximately 130 objects, including drawings, collages, embroidered textiles, shells, botanical specimens and manuscripts related to her interest in landscape gardening. Among these will be 30 of Delaney’s “paper mosaics,” on loan from the British Museum, which houses nearly 1,000 of her works.
The show will also reunite a number of the artist’s textiles, including a court dress embroidered with a cascade of naturalistic flowers on black satin, ca. 1739-1740. This garment was disassembled and preserved by Delany’s heirs; pieces of the dress, reunited here for the first time, will be accompanied by material explaining the story of its survival.
Also on view will be works by Delaney’s contemporaries, including professional botanical artists such as Georg Dionysius Ehret and Barbara Regina Dietzsch, as well as amateur botanical artists such as Mary Capel Forbes. The exhibition will also display objects representing the wider world of 18th-century collecting and classifying, ranging from mineralogy to conchology (the study of shells).
Through drawings, maps and topographical paintings, the exhibition will evoke the design and experience of gardens Delany knew well, including those at Kew and Bulstrode, the estate of Margaret Cavendish Holles Harley Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715-1785), with whom Delany lived and worked.
The relationship between the duchess and Delaney will be celebrated in the installation “Promiscuous Assemblage, Friendship & The Order of Things” by London-based artist Jane Wildgoose.
The duchess’ “Portland Museum,” a collection of natural history specimens and curiosities with which Delaney was familiar, was sold in 1786 in an auction
that included more than 4,000 lots and took place over 38 days.
Wildgoose worked with curators at Yale’s Center for British Art, Peabody Museum and University Art Gallery to create an installation reflecting the range of lots at the sale - from “Shells, Corals, Minerals” to “Curious Exotic Insects” to the eggs of the “Alligator, Turtle, Lizard & Snake,” as well as china and rare books. The installation will also incorporate items that take their inspiration from accounts of gifts Delaney made for her friend as well as decorations for her own home.
The project aims to demonstrate the ways in which natural history displays from the 18th century reflect something of the manners, taste, and material culture of the people who assembled them.
The Yale Center for British Art will also feature a floral display in its entrance court evoking the relationship between Delany’s work with living plants in the garden and her representations of botanical subjects in her collages and embroideries.
Designed by landscape architect Jason Siebenmorgen, the display will consist of a “theater” of plants in three tiers and a curtain of preserved flowers of species depicted by Delany. “Theater” was a key motif of 18th-century horticulture and planting design, and Delany was among the first in Britain to create an outdoor stage for the display of plants.
In conjunction with the exhibition, a publication titled “Mrs. Delaney and Her Circle” is being issued by the Yale Center for British Art and Sir John Soane’s Museum in association with the Yale University Press.
The work will feature essays by a team of international scholars addressing many aspects of Delaney’s life, craftwork and letters in the wider context of 18th-century culture.
“Mrs. Delaney and Her Circle” will be on view at Yale through Jan. 3. It will then go on view at Sir John Soane’s Museum (complete with a separate site-specific installation by Wildgoose) Feb. 18-May 1.
The curators for the exhibition are Alicia Weisberg-Roberts, assistant curator of 18th- and 19th-century art at Walters Art Museum, and Mark Laird, senior lecturer in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Elisabeth Fairman, senior curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Yale Center for British Art, served as the organizing curator for the installation, “Promiscuous Assemblage.”
The Yale Center for British Art, located at 1080 Chapel St., is open to the public free of charge 10 a.m.-5 p.m.Tuesday-Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. on Sunday. The museum will also be open until 7 p.m. on Wednesday Sept. 23-Nov. 18; until 8 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month (as part of First Thursdays in New Haven); and until 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Dec. 10 and 17. It is closed Mondays and major holidays, including Dec. 24, 25 and 31 and Jan. 1.
For further information, call (203) 432-2800 or visit the website at www.yale.edu/ycba.