A little collage history

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 cutouts 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.

A flower collage from the 18th century made by Mary Delany
Mary Delany: Centaurea Peregrina, 1778
©The Trustees of the British Museum

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

Beginning at age 72, Mary Delany 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 was 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 since made their entire collection of these works available online.

Today the collage aesthetic is everywhere in art, music, and commerce, much of it driven by digital technology.

As far as art goes, though, I have a bias toward traditional cutting and pasting. I like the tactile qualities of work created from different papers and objects combined together.  

More paper mosaic collage

A collage artwork showing a woman walking on an Underground train platform.
London places
Imaginary places
How made
A detail from a paper mosaic by Mary Delany.
Historical note