Mrs Delaney, by Clarissa Campbell

Mrs Delany by Clarissa Campbell Orr, book review

Isabel Bannerman reviews this serious and comprehensive exploration of Clarissa Campbell Orr, an intriguing, 18th-century artist and court insider best known for her flower collages

Mrs Delany
Clarissa Campbell Orr
Yale University Press,
£30
ISBN 978-0300161137

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‘I have invented a new way of imitating flowers,’ wrote Mrs Delany of her newfound art form in 1772 – she started in her seventies already an accomplished painter, grotto-maker and writer. It is for these ‘paper mosaics’ that she remains famous. This new biography seeks to reposition Mrs Delany in the century she experienced at the heart of court and London life. It concentrates on the perceptive-looking woman in her twenties captured in a miniature during her enforced first marriage to gouty, drunken, Cornish sot, Alexander Parves. His death in 1725, however, gave her the financial freedom to live free and inquisitive as a widow.

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It was the time of the Enlightenment when everything, from minerals to the stars, was under scrutiny. Mary Delany was a born amateur naturalist, using exotic shells to decorate grottos, painting and pressing flowers. Her friend, the Duchess of Portland, who created a sort of amateur natural history laboratory frequented by the likes of planthunter Joseph Banks, praised the botanical accuracy of Mary’s Flora Delanica and treated it as serious science. The book is packed with cameo appearances from prominent figures such as composer GF Handel, painter Thomas Gainsborough and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

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The research is thorough, and details Mrs Delany’s family network as well as her independence of spirit. Little is known about her love story with her second husband Patrick Delany, but she clearly held her own in the witty world of her friend, the satirist Jonathan Swift. Delany deserves a place among the most respected artistic women of her century such as painter Angelika Kauffman and author Jane Austen, whose Elizabeth Bennet, I like to think she very much resembled.