It's not just me. Those eighteenth-century botanical illustrations really do look, in Molly Peacock's words, as if the artist had "shined a flashlight on nine hundred and eighty-five flowers' cunts."
I just finished reading poet and memoirist Peacock's new book, The Paper Garden: An Artist (Begins Her Life's Work) At 72, a biography of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, the subject of a long central chapter in my book Sister Arts and really, the inspiration for that whole project. Between Peacock's book and the sumptuous 2009 exhibition catalog Mrs. Delany and Her Circle,
my obscure, beloved Delany is having a moment of unprecedented visibility. Peacock's approach is to use Delany's life and work as an opportunity to muse on her own second marriage and work as a mature artist: "She had no children. I had no children. She had a deep connection to a second husband. I had such a bond....She had a plethora of arty girlfriends. So do I....Her husband had died. I was afraid mine would." Both life narratives, Delany's and Peacock's, are absorbing reads. Peacock's writing is often thrilling, as in this chapter that begins like a prose poem:
Now let Mrs. Delany be blooded.
Let her eyesight fade.
Let her stop painting.
Let her sit in a stupor.
Let food be tasteless in her mouth...
Let bloodlines be formed.
Let the generations fly.
Most gratifying to me, though, is Peacock's unabashedly sexual reading of the images. Peacock gives more attention than I do to Delany's heterosexual romances (though she does note in passing the "atmosphere of gay attachment" in Delany's life and very kindly cites me on this), but we agree that Delany's work expresses a forthright and active feminine sexuality. Here's Peacock on the shell-lined garden grotto Delany constructed with Anne Donellan, the friend with whom she travelled to Ireland in the 1730s and whom she nicknamed "Phil:" "The grotto was like a secret garden. It was shadowy, moist, and close: sexy."
Peacock on Delany's Lilium Canadense: "She built up the surface by pasting red pieces on top of red pieces. The lily petals have a bumpy, labial look to them. And the colors are of excited female sexual organs."
Umm, yeah. In my book, I come to similar conclusions about Delany's work and use these readings to make an argument about its place in a tradition of lesbian erotic expression. Lesbian critics are often accused of "reading too much into" images like this, distorting the past in order to find ourselves there. It's nice to meet straight sister artist Molly Peacock in the same place.