In Other Words

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - look

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.