Mary Delany: An Artist With Exceptional Gallery of Paper Cuts

The art of paper cuts remains rare to date. While many may forget it for the reason, here’s a throwback to one of the leading artists who started late and took attention with her precision, Mary Delany.

Mary Delany

In the history of humanities, there have been many artists who gave us new opportunities to see the catastrophic techniques to reach beyond perfection through their artworks. Besides, for some, the artistry lies in copying the works of old masters. And interestingly, they would reproduce the works of their masters to display in the family rooms to demonstrate their accomplishments. For others, the copies they make for themselves are acquired from friends or purchased by professional artists to allow them to hold a good and small art collection to decorate their apartments. For instance, George Vertue reported that Lady Burlington made few copies of works of her husband’s collection and that Miss Da Costa’s paintings crucially included copied versions of Rubens, Van Dyck, and others for her Ladies Cabinet. One of the best-known amateur painters, of the 18th century who was an avid copier of the paintings was Mary Delany. Sophie van la Roche described her with words,

“remarkable lady close to 90 years”


“abundant evidence of her noble industry and intellect”

Today, we are here to talk about Mrs. Delany through her life and paintings.

Artist Abstract: Mary Delany.

Starting from the words of Mary Delany, allow me to show you a note of the artist from 1793,

“Painting has fewer objections and generally leads people into a much better company.”

Mary Delany Portrait by John Opie

Born in Coulston, Wiltshire, on 14 May 1700, Mary was the oldest daughter of Colonel Bernard Granville. She spent her early years in London and then moved with her family to Buckland Manor in the Cotswolds. As she was forced into an arranged marriage with Alexander Pendarves, MP for Launceston, they lived at Penryn, Falmouth. However, in 1725, her husband died. Following this, she visited Ireland in 1731 and stayed there till 1733 as she became acquainted with Jonathan Swift. In 1743, she married Swift’s friend Dr. Patrick Delany, who was also the Dean of Down and tutor at Trinity College. Mary made many visits to England and principally to her sister Anne Dewes at Wellesbourne, Warwickshire. Settled in London after her husband died in 1768, she spent several months at Bulstrode. Finally, she moved to Windsor in 1785.

ArtistMary Granville Delany (later Mary Pendarves)
Birth14 May 1700
Death15 April 1788
GenreFlower Paintings
PeriodRococo Period

Life, Training and Paintings of the Artist.

Mary Delany was one of the most talented women of the 18th century who could do needlework, shell decoration, silhouettes, make paper collages, japanning, and particularly painted in oils and watercolors. She knew botany, mineralogy, and astronomy as well. Often she would write letters that tell us her intuitive thinking about landscape design, architecture, social habits, and the fashion of clothes. But the most significant thing for which she is known today is her starting of life’s works at the very age of seventy-two. And at just that age, she invented the precursor of collage. There is a very interesting story behind this invention. On the afternoon of the year 1772, she noticed how a piece of colored paper matched the dropper petal of the geranium and as she make a vital imaginative connection between paper and petal, she lifted the pair of filigree-handled scissors, carefully cutting the exact geranium petal shape from the scarlet paper. As she repeated the process, it soon formed the most remarkable work of her life.

Born in 1700 at her father’s country house in the Wiltshire village of the Coulston, she had an incredible life with adventures. From seeing the rise of the coffee house where she took refuge on the day of the coronation of George II to hearing firsthand the voyage of Captain Cook, financed partly by her friend Duchess of Portland, and attending her hero Handel’s Messiah, Mary was a social woman with an exquisite taste. In the middle age of Mary, she sees the truth of Irish poverty, and in her old age, she feels the sting of revolution on the other side of the world, which divided North America into Canada and the United States. Surviving from her first marriage to Alexander Pendarves, a sixty-year-old drunken squire who just left a widow’s pension when she was just seventeen, she ultimately found herself in a bust-up of a relationship with the peripatetic Lord Baltimore. 

Mary was taught by private tutors in English, French, music, needlework, and dance. As a child, she used to cut silhouettes, choosing subjects such as family groups, children at play, and pastoral scenes. Besides, she learned needlework at an early age, and when she was married to Alexander, she would spend hours sewing by the side of him. Her subjects were flowers, and she also knew embroidery of the cushion, chair covers, handkerchiefs, quilts, knotting bags, and kneelers. The most beautiful and magnificent embroidery she ever did was of the court dress, which she designed and worked on in the 1760s, which was composed of hundreds of large and small plants in the Rococo style on black silk. 

The interest in seashell decoration majorly developed when Mary was in Cornwall. In Ireland, in 1732, she built a grotto at Killala and decorated it with shells. Though none of the grottoes, survived to date, we know that they were built at Northend, Fulham, London, Delville, and Calwich Abbey. Further, Mary used shells to decorate the walls of a bathhouse at Walton, Warwickshire, and ornamented interiors of the houses at Wellesborune, Calwich Abbey, Bulstrode, and Delville. 

One of the significant things in her life was her friendship with the wife of the 2nd Duke of Portland, which was a mutual blessing for both of them in old age when they were widowed. Sharing an interest in the arts, botany, astronomy, conchology, and mineralogy, they naturally drew many distinguished people with diverse interests to Bulstrode, the Duchess’s country house in Buckinghamshire, among them were the botanists and explorers Sir Joseph Banks, D. Solander and C. Alstromer; the Botanical artist George Dionys Ehret, the horticulturist G. Miller, and the actor David Garrick and members of the Royal family as well.

Now that you know quite well about Mary, let me show you her paintings from a virtual gallery.

Final Words.

As a woman artist, Mary Delany recomposed the organic shapes she cut from her sharp scissors into the mirror likeness of that geranium, pasting up an exact, life-sized replica on a black piece of paper. And she made these paintings with such precision and clarity that even the viewer can’t tell if the flowers are really made of paper. Mrs. D dubbed her papers and petals paste-up as a flower mosaic, and in her next few years, she would make a thousand cut-paper botanicals so accurate that even botanists refer to them. Drenching the white laid paper with black watercolor to obtain stage-curtain-like darkness, she would build a verisimilitude of flora with hundreds of dots, scoops, and moons. 


1. The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany begins her life’s work at 72.

2. Dictionary of Women Artists by Delia Gaze.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who was the first female collage artist?

Mary Delany was the first person who invented the collages, even before Picasso was credited with it. In the year 1772, as she dropped a piece of colored paper accidentally on the petal of a geranium, her collective and imaginative connection formed the idea of collage.

What is sea daffodil Mary Delany?

The sea daffodil (Pancratium Maritinum) was painted by Mary Delany in 1778. Using tiny pieces of paper, Mary Delany (1700-1788) crafted her intricate “mosaics” to imitate flowers. She produced nearly 1,000 of these creations.

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