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Part 24. Two Ladies

Part 24 - Two Ladies

Two ladies this time who lived and died more than two hundred years apart, one whose name is still on many lips and one who is all but unknown: I’ll begin with the latter. Mrs Delany was born in 1700 in Wiltshire, married off at seventeen to a Cornish M.P. she was widowed four years later. However, in 1743 she married-against the wishes of her family- Dr Patrick Delany, an Anglican clerical friend of Jonathon Swift. Till his death in 1768 she spent her time on his small Dublin estate within a close circle of Irish gentry. And why should we be interested in her? Because she was a talented needlewoman, artist and maker of exquisite botanical “paper mosaicks” besides being a prolific letter writer and well-loved friend of the Duchess of Portland and latterly George III.

There are two books about her: the large format Mrs Delany and Her Circle edited by Mark Laird and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts was published in 2009 to accompany a recent exhibition of her botanical collages and embroideries-charming life-sized depictions of flowers on black silk and velvet, designed if not worked by her. The chapter headings give a good idea of the scope of Mary Delany’s interests: after Director’s Foreword, Acknowledgements, and two Introductions sandwiching A Theatre of Mrs Delany’s Collages, there are two hundred pages- twelve chapters- by different authors. These are Mrs Delany and the Court, Mary Delany’s Embroidered Court Dress, Dressing for Court: Sartorial Politics and Fashion News in the Age of Mrs Delany, The Theory and Practice of Female Accomplishment, Mrs Delany’s Paintings and Drawings Adorning Aspasia’s Closet, Mary Delany:Epistolary Utterances, Cabinet Spaces and Natural History, Mrs Delany’s Circles of Cutting and Embroidering in Home and Garden, Mrs Delany’s Natural History and Zoological Activities, Novelty in Nomemclature: The Botanical Horizons of Mary Delany , A Progress in Plants: Mrs Delany’s Botanical Sources, The “Paper Mosaick” Practice of Mrs Delany and her Circle and finally An Imtimate and Intricate Mosaic: Mrs Delany and her Use of Paper. The usual Appendix, Bibliography, Concordance and Index complete the book and if it sounds a somewhat indigestible heavy mix, it is. It is a Yale publication so nicely produced on heavy paper, well laid out with three columns per page and generously illustrated with her work and other appropriate pictures but it is a work of scholarship, not a chatty biography.

For that I would recommend the earlier Mrs Delany, her Life and Her Flowers by Ruth Hayden, a descendant who has written a warm account of her life. We start with Acknowledgements, Preface, and Introduction and then eight chapters cover her life and achievements in a hundred and fifty pages. Two Lists of her Work, Further Reading and an Index end the book. Again, lavishly illustrated, quite a lot in back and white but plenty about her needlework.

So, take your choice: Hayden’s charming and straightforward account of Mary Delany’s life or the scholarly Yale volume with its wealth of background and context. If you buy/borrow both, read the Hayden first.

I also have two books about my next lady-Laura Ashley. If you want a lavishly illustrated and well-written look at her life and all aspects of the “Laura Ashley Style” then Martin Wood’s Laura Ashley will take you through from her birth in 1925 till her death in 1985, with energy and fluency. His chapter titles alone give a flavour of this eminently readable book: From the Land of Myth and Song, Kitchen Table Chic, Fashion Icon, The Victorian Revival, Hearth and Home, Triumph and Tragedy though he ends with the standard Notes (good), Bibliography, Index and Acknowledgements. Notwithstanding being beautifully produced and illustrated full colour, it is still surprisingly expensive for fewer than two hundred pages. But I would still recommend it.

If you are looking for a straight forward biography of Laura, I can recommend Laura Ashley, A Life by Design written in 1990 by Anne Sebba. Illustrated with eight pages of black and white photographs, this is an extremely competent and well-written account, warts and all. But it has none of the colour, excitement and scope of Woods’s book, no pictures of the fabrics and decorated rooms to drool over; you could buy both, each complements the other.

And to end with a shameless plug for the Quilt Museum, their library has many back copies of Laura Ashley catalogues, a useful resource for dating her fabrics, do ask.


Mrs Delany and her Circle, edited by Mark Laird and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts is published for the Yale Centre for British Art and St John Soane’s Museum in 2009 by Yale University, ISBN 970-0-300-14279. Amazon has it new for £28.73, other websites slightly cheaper but certainly under £30.00

Mrs Delany, Her Life and her Flowers by Ruth Hayden was published in 1980 by the British Museum Press, second edition as Mrs Delany and her Flower Collages 1992, paperback 2000, ISBN 0-7141-2627-6. It is unavailable new on Amazon but cheap on lots of websites.

Laura Ashley by Martin Wood was published by Francis Lincoln in 2009, ISBN 978-0-7112-2897-9. Amazon have it at £21.95, a good discount from £35.00 and better than most websites.

Laura Ashley, A Life by Design by Anne Sebba was published by Weidenfield and Nicholson in 1990, paperback in 1991. ISBN 0-297-81199-1. The paperback is unavailable on Amazon, hardback is £15.00. On websites both paperback and hardback can be found very cheaply indeed.

As usual these prices were at time of writing and may alter.

© Brigid J.Ockelton. 2010

PLEASE NOTE - An indication is given of the availability and market price of the book at the time of writing and may not reflect today's availability and price.