Mary Delany: Nodding Thistle. Courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum.Art historians will tell you that collage began around the beginning of the last century, when Picasso and Braque pasted some papers onto their paintings. It is assumed that what people did with cut paper and cut-outs of pictures before then belongs entirely in the realm of amateur folk crafts, and cannot be classified as “art.” However, people around the world have been creating beautiful work with paper and cutting devices for centuries.


One of my favorites is the 18th C. English aristocrat Mrs. Mary Delany (1700–1788) whose work has become more popular in recent years.


Mary Delany, beginning at age 72, created almost 1,000 botanical illustrations from cut paper. She worked on them until her eyesight began to fail in her early 80s. Her pictures were made with incredibly intricate detail. She would cut out with exact precision each tiny detail of a plant—individual stamens, bits of pollen, cactus spines... She called her works “Paper Mosaicks,” and that is partly why I liked to use the term paper mosaic collage for my own pictures.


One of the great joys of my life was getting to study a majority of these in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum in the 1990s. They have now scanned their entire collection of nearly 1,000 of these works and made it available online.


Today, in general,  the collage aesthetic is everywhere in art, music, and commerce, much of it driven by computer technology. As far as art goes, though, I confess to a bias toward traditional cutting and pasting. I love the tactile qualities of work created from different papers and objects combined together. My own pictures are quite textural. People have even felt compelled to pet them!

All artwork images © Ellen Golla unless otherwise noted.

Reproduction and/or use without permission prohibited.