Thursday, 18 March 2010

Woman Did Not Waste Time - Mrs Delany's Legacy (and Existentialism)

Woman Did Not Waste Time was a headline in the Oxford Mail - it had nothing to do with Mrs Delany, but I was glad for the reassurance and hope you are too. I have visited Mrs Delany before on this blog, and I confess that after reading the reviews of her work by the media I feel at a tangent to their universe. I took my perplexity along to Mrs Delany's exhibition at John Soane's Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields last week to see if I could resolve some issues. (Please note that John Soane's Museum to the V&A by direct Picadilly line is about 20 minutes door to door - so if you are visiting the Quilt Exhibition, do drop by to see this exhibition also.) I'd read the book Mrs Delany and Her Circle and it struck me as quite extraordinary to have 14 present day experts analyse the work of one who is regarded by some to have wasted her time. Doesn't that make you smile, too? The exhibition is not huge, but very impressive. The exquisite photographs in the book of the wonderfully shaded embroidery had left me quite unprepared for the astonishing dimensionality of the needlework itself. Sprigs of flowers appear to occupy a recession of planes, likewise the stitching of a single flower is executed in such a way to raise individual petals above others, and differentiate minute botanical details. I have never seen the like. For the flower mosaics, composed of delicately cut and tinted pieces of paper, I was full of admiration. Having read some explanation on a table I looked up and saw close-to in front of my gaze what could only have been a carefully pressed flower - and it was only after a few moments that I realized this was one of the paper mosaics. I have practised botanical illustration and pressed flowers in the past and know how difficult it is to arrange the plant so that all elements are available for study. It is, of course, impossible to press fleshy plants without deconstruction prior to drying. And having gone to all this trouble, the plant fades quickly with time. Not so with Mrs Delany's paper botanical mosaics which reveal with accuracy and without loss of colour the construction of plants. What a service Mary provided to botanical students and botanical classification in her time. That her work received praise from Sir Joseph Banks should be praise enough.To say that this repetitive, time-consuming, sedentary work is wasted time is to say that the repetitive, time-consuming, sedentary work of Redouté is wasted time. The question is not one of feminism, but of existensialism - how should we engage ourselves and spend our lives, given freedom of choice?


  1. Your description of Mrs. Delaney's paper botanical mosaics makes me think of the Glass Flowers Collection at Harvard University's Museum of Natural History ( I saw them last summer and was completely enthralled with the amazing level of detail and with the depth and breadth of the plants included. Cut away models even allow you to see inside many flowers' structure. And as you said, they don't fade or wither.

  2. A 'waste of time' is purely a personal observance from the point of view of the observer. My own personal philosophy is, if it makes me happy, it`s not a waste of time. I have been chided that blog surfing, stitching, and daydreaming are a waste of time. Not to me they aren`t! I have learned to ignore others and go with my inner voice. I am much happier as a result. The embroidery here is breathtaking Jaqueline...thanks for posting it!