Mrs Delany and Ceramics in the Objectscape

Jo Dahn

  Mrs Delany: biography

Born Mary Granville, Mrs Delany, as she is usually known, was first married (against her inclination) in 1718 to Alexander Pendarves, a man of means forty-one years her senior. The marriage had been engineered by her Uncle, Lord Lansdowne, in an attempt to resuscitate the family fortunes. However, Alexander Pendarves died suddenly in 1724. Contrary to expectations, he had not made a will in favour of his wife, and the bulk of his estate went to his niece. His widow was left an income amounting to some hundreds (rather than thousands) of pounds per annum. She went to live with her uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Stanley, at their villa in Fulham. After the requisite period of mourning, she became a popular member of court society whose taste and artistic abilities were much admired. She developed a high level of skill in decorative work of all kinds, such as textiles, japanning, shell work, as well as the famous flora; she was also considered to be highly accomplished at drawing, painting and music.

After Lady Stanley died in 1730, Mary Pendarves went to live at Richmond with her friend Mrs Donellan. The following year the two women made an extended visit to Ireland. It was there that the widow Pendarves met clergyman Dr Patrick Delany (1685-1768). Upon her return to England in the spring of 1733, she set up house in Lower Brook Street, London. Patrick Delany became a widower in 1740, at the age of 55. Three years later he arrived in London and proposed to Mary Pendarves. Despite some family resistance - her brother Bernard disapproved because Delany was the son of a servant - the couple were married in July 1743. Their first year together was spent in England; then in June 1744 they removed to Dr Delany's residence at Delville in Dublin. Their ensuing twenty-five years of happy marriage were mostly spent in Ireland.

Mrs Delany regularly corresponded with many people, the majority of them women. A large proportion of her published letters was written (often on a daily basis) to her sister Ann Granville, who became Mrs Dewes in 1740. These letters are long and detailed; in many ways they appear to have functioned as a diary. After Ann Dewes died in July 1761, Mrs Delany transferred the correspondence to her niece Mary Dewes, although 'her natural elasticity of spirit did not recover its former level for many years'.12 That 'elasticity' was tested again in 1768 when Patrick Delany died. His widow spent the first months of her mourning at Bulstrode with the Duchess of Portland, herself already a widow. Their friendship revolved around shared interests, including botany and horticulture, as well as those decorative arts already listed for Mrs Delany. The Duchess of Portland was, amongst other things, a proficient wood turner.13

Until the Duchess of Portland died in 1785, Mrs Delany spent 'six months of every year, generally from spring to autumn' at Bulstrode.14 She occupied an elevated position at court where she was much respected. Her style in all things, even (perhaps especially) in old age, was seen as the epitome of good breeding. She spent the last three years of her life in a 'cottage' provided by the King and Queen on the royal estate at Windsor.

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12 Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, IV, 3. Mary Dewes became Mrs Mary Port on her marriage to John Port of Ilam in 1770. Her marriage had no noticeable effect on her correspondence with her aunt. back to article

13 Bulstrode was near Gerrard's Cross, Buckinghamshire. It was a hive of cultural activity that circulated around the Duchess of Portland. In 1768, for example, the painter Ehret was there, teaching her daughters to paint, and making botanical paintings for the Duchess at 2 guineas each. He was just one of a steady stream of artists and scientists. The family chaplain was distinguished botanist the Reverend John Lightfoot, and in 1771 botanists Joseph Banks (1743-1820) and Patrick Sloander (1733-82) who had sailed with Cook, were at Bulstrode. See Llanover I-VI 1861-2. back to article

14 Ruth Hayden, Mrs Delany and Her Flower Collages, British Museum, 1992, 106. back to article


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Mrs Delany: biography

Mrs Delany in relation to Wedgwood

Ceramics and feminine subjectivity

Concluding remarks

Mrs Delany and Ceramics in the Objectscape • Issue 1