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Paper Mosaics and Paper Sentiments: Mary Delany’s Loves of the Plants

A public lecture by Professor Deirdre Lynch (Harvard University) at The University of Queensland.

Date: Wednesday 13 December 2017
Time: 5.30–6.45pm, with a reception to follow.
Venue: Terrace Room, Sir Llew Edwards Building, The University of Queensland, St Lucia
RSVP: By Monday 11 December to uqche@uq.edu.au. All welcome.

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In her seventh decade, the eighteenth-century bluestocking Mary Granville Delany invented, as she put it in 1772, ‘a new way of imitating flowers’. Breaking with the tradition of watercolour painting that had long defined botanical illustration, Delany began work on a multi-volume paper herbarium she called her ‘paper Mosaic’. Over the next decade, she produced a thousand life-size portraits of plant specimens from far-flung destinations amassed in the botanical inventory of her friend the Duchess of Portland. Delany’s cut-paper botanicals were assembled from bits of paper sheets drawn from a variety of locations; the portraits were then gathered in their turn in ten calf-bound albums, where they were originally interleaved with handwritten poems. Today Delany is viewed either as a precocious inventor of the collage tradition associated with twentieth-century avant-garde art-making, or as a contributor to Enlightenment natural history. Indeed in her time learned men like Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Banks praised the accuracy of her ‘curious hortus siccus’ – ‘less liable to fallacy’, wrote Darwin, than drawings were.

In this lecture, I assess Delany’s achievement differently, zeroing in on her book-making and its sources in the broader material culture of eighteenth-century emotion. I will track Delany’s relationship to a mainly female tradition in which home-made manuscript books – dubbed, variously, family books, friendship albums, or scrap-books – mattered, in both senses of the term matter, and in which paper in particular was valued for how, as a mnemonic object, it preserved the traces of the hands that had manipulated it. Tracking that relationship makes visible the overlap between the practice of Enlightenment natural science and the practice of friendship. Yet in some measure Delany’s combination of botanising and book-making also calls into question the work of typification and classification through which Enlightenment natural history proceeded – a point that this lecture will explore by investigating how these paper mosaics balance delicately between a logic of the specimen and a logic of the souvenir.

Deidre Shauna Lynch is Ernest Bernbaum Professor of English Literature at Harvard University. She has published widely on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature and culture, women’s writing, the theory and history of the novel, and the intersections between the history of emotions and the history of reading. She is the author of The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture and the Business of Inner Meaning (University of Chicago Press, 1998), for which she won the Modern Language Association Prize for a First Book; and Loving Literature: A Cultural History (University of Chicago Press, 2014), for which she was a finalist for both the Phi Beta Kappa Christian Gauss Award for Literary Criticism and the Oscar Kenshur Prize in Eighteenth-Century Studies. Her many edited volumes include Cultural Institutions of the Novel (Duke University Press, 1996, with William B. Warner); Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees (Princeton University Press, 2000); the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Austen’s Persuasion (2004); the Norton Critical Edition of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (2009); and the Romantic Period volume of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. She is currently working on a special issue of PMLA, entitled “Cultures of Reading”; The Unfinished Book, a volume co-edited with Alexandra Gillespie; and a book with the working title Slips and Scraps: Disassembling the Book in the Long Eighteenth Century

This lecture is a keynote event for the 2017 David Nichol Smith Seminar in Eighteenth-Century Studies, ‘Natures and Spaces of Enlightenment’, to be held at UQ and Griffith University from 13–15 December 2017. Further information.

Image: Mary Delany, Aeschelus Hippocastanum (Heptandria Monogynia), 1776. Collage of coloured papers, with bodycolour and watercolour, on black ink background. © The Trustees of the British Museum.