Summer is in full swing, and everywhere in gardens, parks, window boxes, and balconies, flowers are bursting with colour. Flowers can be exciting, calming, awe inspiring – and somehow this summer they seem more wonderful than ever. Of course, Chelsea has been home to the Royal Horticultural Society’s fabulous Flower Show for more than a century – this year it has been postponed to September, when I’m sure it will be the treasure trove we’ve come to expect.
Our Biography Collection (Special Collection of Biographies) contains many books about famous gardeners and garden designers, plant collectors and those who developed the scientific understanding of flowers. For this blog post I want to focus on three people who in very different ways have celebrated flowers and deepened our experience of them.
Have a look at these exquisite flower pictures which date from the 18th century; it may surprise you to learn that their creator was a woman who completed almost 1000 of these images between the ages of 73 and 82. You might be further surprised that they are not paintings, but collages. Mary Delany was born Mary Granville in 1700. Aged 17, she was married to a man of 60, as a way of consolidating the political aspirations of her aristocratic family. He died eight years later, and she did not remarry until her early forties, when she became the wife of Irish clergyman Patrick Delany – they divided their time between Dublin and County Down. Both Delanys were keen gardeners and Mary celebrated flowers in a range of creative work, including watercolour, embroidery and collages with shells. Delany felt that delicate tissue paper could most closely evoke the texture of actual flower petals, and eventually perfected her original method which she called “paper mosaic”, building detailed flower images with tiny cut-out shapes meticulously layered, and mounted on black paper to dramatic effect (this was revolutionary, as botanical illustrations were traditionally given white backgrounds, echoing herbaria where plant specimens were always shown against white). She was an expert botanist, and would dissect the flowers before depicting them, to make sure her work was accurate as well as beautiful. King George III and Queen Charlotte became huge fans, as well as friends. She had a circle of other eminent friends, including Jonathan Swift, and the botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who was a key figure in the founding and development of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. We are fortunate in having nine books about Mrs Delany in the collection, including a tiny volume of her letters from 1821 which is illustrated with a silhouette portrait of her at the age of 87 and a 21st century volume of recipes, remedies and etiquette tips gleaned from her letters.
William Robinson‘s career began humbly in Ireland, when he was employed as a teenaged “garden boy” by the Marquess of Waterford. His precocious expertise with flowers led him to become one of the most influential gardeners of the late19th and early 20th centuries. In 1861, when he was only 23, he moved to London to work at Regents Park, where he became an authority on British wildflowers. He wrote a range of gardening books which were so successful that he was able to buy Gravetye Manor in Sussex, where he set about creating a magnificent range of gardens. Robinson championed wild, natural styles of garden design, taking inspiration from the traditional English cottage garden – he railed against straight lines, “carpet” beds of monotonous bright colours, and the formality of topiary and statues (he was very critical of some of the contemporary plantings in Kensington Gardens, which he considered hideous). Instead he promoted the abundance of simple, often neglected, meadow flowers, blurring the boundary between garden and wild countryside, and bringing the Arts and Crafts aesthetic into the garden. His were amongst the go-to books for millions of British gardeners up until the 1930s, when he died and his fame began to fade.
Ross Gay‘s The Book of Delights is quite simply one of the most life-affirming books I have ever read. A collection of essays written over a year, it is a catalogue of the small joys of everyday life, which poet Gay describes with lyricism, humour and an acknowledgement that delight co-exists with pain, and can be rendered more precious by it. In his preface Gay lists nine themes that he traces coming up repeatedly over his year of “delights” – one of them is his garden, and I am including this book because many of its most incandescent passage relate to flowers, and remind us of their power to surprise us and to offer us joy in the middle of whatever else we are going through (in fact, flowers recur so often as a topic that as well as being classified on book websites as “Philosophy” and “Social Sciences”, the book may also be found in “Gardening”; Gay is a passionate gardener and founder of a community orchard in Bloomington, Indiana). Throughout the 102 essays, on a multitude of topics including friendship, loss, the African-American experience and the meaning of community, flowers make repeated appearances and are a recurring motif resonating with hope. Many of the essays focus on the flowers Gay plants, cherishes, unexpectedly encounters and observes with what he calls “supreme attentiveness”. The essay “Flower in the Curb” is a meditation on friendship, memory, loss, our relationship to public space and the serendipity of sudden beauty, all in three paragraphs, and though there is much more than flowers in Gay’s records of his “intense fleeting attentions”, flowers are a constant theme and some of the most memorable and uplifting passages are woven through with their scents and textures, and their profound redemptive meaning to Gay.
- Claudia, Kensington Central Library