Art and botany unite in exhibit

At the intersection of art and science lies the work of Mary Delany, the 18th-century artist/botanist who is the focus of the newest exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art.

“Mrs. Delany and her Circle,” which opens to the public this Thursday, Sept. 24, includes many of the collages of exotic plants for which Mrs. Delany is most known, as well as some of her drawings, embroidered textiles and botanical specimens. The exhibition seeks to explore the relationship between art and science and the importance of the study of nature in 18th-century Britain through Mrs. Delany’s work, Director of the Yale Center for British Art Amy Meyers said.

“Mrs. Delany’s work resulted in aesthetic pleasure, but also stimulated whole communities of people to engage in exploration of the natural world,” Meyers said. “Her life was exemplary, and tells us a lot about the 18th century.”

The idea for “Mrs. Delany and her Circle” was originally conceived at the Yale Center for British Art more than five years ago, and has been realized with the help of the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. A smaller version of the exhibition will travel to London this winter, but this is the only North American venue where it will be displayed.

Curators Mark Laird and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts said Mrs. Delany’s work is an example of the fascination with horticulture, landscape and botany that infected British culture during her lifetime — a trend that resulted in part from the extension of Britain’s power across the globe. The plant specimens pictured in Mrs. Delany’s collages, drawings and embroidery came from as far away as Australia and Africa, and many of them were unknown to Western society before the 1700s.

As its title suggests, the exhibition is also about Mrs. Delany’s role as the center of a social network. The fascination with botanic pursuits in general, and her work in particular, brought together the whole of British society, from courtiers to plant-nursery laborers, Associate Head of Research at the Yale Center for British Art Lisa Ford said. Inscriptions on the backs of Mrs. Delany’s collages have helped keep records of the names of the friends — be they of high or low social origin — who gave her samples of the plants she portrayed in her work, Ford explained.

The main exhibit is accompanied by two special installations that shed additional light on Delany’s inspiration. The Entrance Court of the Center has been filled with a floral display designed by landscape architect Jason Sienbenmorgen, which uses living and dried specimens of some of the exotic plants Mrs. Delany collected and studied.

A room directly following the main exhibit contains natural, scientific and artistic objects arranged into the kind of collector’s cabinet that was popular in the 1700s. British artist Jane Wildgoose created this installation as a tribute to the friendship between Delany and the Duchess of Portland, a contemporary nature enthusiast and collector.

Ultimately, Mrs. Delany’s interest in botany transcended both science and art, Weiberg-Roberts and Laird said.

“Her work was a spiritual, devotional exercise,” Weiberg-Roberts said. “For her, describing the world accurately was describing God’s creation accurately.”

“Mrs. Delany and Her Circle” will be on view at the Yale Center for British Art until Jan. 3, 2010.

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