In Other Words
Peacock & Vine: On William Morris and Mario Fortuny by A.S. Byatt
Peacock and Vine: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny by A.S. Byatt, Knopf, 181 pages
A novelist’s interest in the schematic design of a narrative can sometimes extend to an interest in design in real life. Edith Wharton wrote The Decoration of
Houses, a book on interior design; Tolstoy spent time thinking about the layout of the peasant quarters on his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, and had a schoolhouse erected there. In Peacock and Vine: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny, novelist A.S. Byatt takes us on an absorbing tour of the lives and work of two craftsmen-artists. A sensitive guide, she opens our minds to design in fresh and lively ways. Best of all, having crafted numerous novels over her long career, she has learned which parts to leave out.
Byatt gives a condensed version of the community and the quaintly incestuous relationship among the pre-Raphaelites, a group with which William Morris is associated. For those who think Morris is a lesser pre-Raphaelite because he designed such ordinary stuff as wallpaper, this book encourages a reconsideration of his contribution. The seemingly inexhaustible British designer believed that ornamental pattern work should possess three qualities: beauty, imagination, and order. He kept those qualities in mind when he designed the Red House, outside London, as a space for his family to live in and entertain. Morris and his wife, Jane, painted some of the whimsical ceilings together. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a leading pre-Raphaelite, not only famously painted Jane but also became involved in a long-term relationship with her in another house Morris loved, Kelmscott Manor.
The pleasure of work is a recurring theme in this book. Byatt cites Morris’ endorsement of Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s belief that “art is the expression of man’s pleasure in labour; that it is possible for man to rejoice in his work, for, strange as it may seem to us today, there have been times when he did rejoice in it.” Morris and Ruskin both savored work and also minutely studied nature, though this book shies away from doing the latter. The chapter on pomegranates, for instance, says almost nothing about the real fruit — which is in keeping with the book’s scope to discuss symbolism and its appearance in design. Still, that narrowness can feel stifling, or worse, read like a precocious form of cultural imperialism: In India, pomegranate seeds are in common culinary use.
Byatt’s book is strengthened by her awareness that she is writing about two men whose private lives were inseparable from their work. Fortuny’s Palazzo Pesaro Orfei in Venice contained the attic workshop where he designed his legendary flowing gowns. While they were said to free women from constrictive corsets, they posed another kind of restriction. A gown’s silky material pooled at the wearer’s feet, and she certainly couldn’t wander far in it.
We get a more intimate feel for Morris’ quirky life and his surprising temperament than we do for that of Fortuny, though both were devoted to their wives. “Morris’s domesticity was tormented,” she writes, “however generously he tried to accommodate his wife’s needs and nerves. Fortuny seems to have created domestic calm and happiness in a glittering cavern.” Both men were polymaths. The scope of their endeavors was not limited to any one art form or solely to design. Fortuny, for instance, also invented a new way of lighting theatrical productions.
That Byatt is knowledgeable about design, and especially about pottery, comes across in her novel The Children’s Book, which has such an exuberance of detail on craftsmanship and fairytales that it nearly swamps the story. Novelists are understandably attracted to the visual arts. It is refreshing to go from the density of words to the clarity of the image. Julian Barnes’ latest book of essays on art, Keeping An Eye Open: Essays on Art speaks to that affinity.
“I like looking at colours just for the sake of looking at colours,” Byatt writes. “It is always surprising how people don’t really at things. I was once in a gallery where there was an exhibition of Monet’s paintings of Rouen Cathedral. I sat on a bench to look at them, in bright painted sunlight, in shadow, in simple daylight. A steady stream of people walked, without stopping, between me and the paintings, turning their heads briefly to note each one. What did they see? What did they remember? I, on the other hand, tried to make my brain record tiny juxtapositions of greys and browns, notations of shade and brightness. It is not possible to remember whole cathedrals, only impressions. But it is exciting to try.”
Fortunately for us, Byatt inspires us to take a closer look as well. Her book is sumptuously illustrated with images of the Red House, Morris’ wallpapers, and capes designed by Fortuny. Even though there was historically only a loose connection between Morris and Fortuny, Byatt intuits a deeper bond between the two men — one that any workaholic artist will appreciate. — Priyanka Kumar