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The stuff of life: how A S Byatt intertwined the lives of William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

In Peacock & Vine, Byatt has turned works of art and their shade, texture, patina and heft into words.

How to evoke a colour in words? It is a task of daunting simplicity which A S Byatt attempts in her essay on the artist-designers William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. A Fortuny dress in pleated silk embellished with gold pomegranates is, she writes, “a colour somewhere between dark pink and pale red . . . a shining rose crossed with rust”. She adds, “no one reading what I have written will imagine the colour very well, or at all”. An adjacent photograph of the dress shows that “rose crossed with rust” is a fine description of its luscious and evasive colour – though it is also true that the words will conjure a slightly different tone in the mind of every reader, and none of those imagined russets will be exactly that of the dress.

Still, if anyone can turn words into shade, texture, patina, heft, it is Byatt. Her fictions swarm with physical objects of intense emotional potency and with characters whose lives they touch in strange and unexpected ways. Byatt herself, she writes in her introduction, has “always admired those whose lives and arts are indistinguishable from each other. And as I grow older I become more and more interested in craftsmen – glass-blowers, potters, makers of textiles.” Her own ancestors, she remarks, were Staffordshire potters.

On a first visit to the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, Byatt found herself unexpectedly thinking about William Morris, whose work she knew well. “I was using Morris . . . to understand Fortuny. I was using Fortuny to reimagine Morris. Aquamarine, gold green. English meadows, Venetian canals.”

The two men were born four decades apart: Morris in 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex, to “a family with no aesthetic interests”, Fortuny in Granada in 1871, to an aristocratic family of artists and collectors. Each led a life of intense, multifarious ­creativity in surroundings where no distinction was made between domesticity and professional work. Morris designed houses, gardens, furniture, stained glass, tapestries, textiles, wallpaper, books and typefaces. Fortuny was a painter, photographer, theatre designer and inventor whose innovations included a system of electrical stage lighting that revolutionised the staging of Wagner’s operas.

Both he and Morris came late to textile design, but it is perhaps for this that each is now best known. In 1907, after reading a book by the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who excavated the Minoan palace at Knossos, Fortuny designed his first purely fashion creation, the Knossos scarf, incorporating Minoan imagery. In 1909 he patented his Delphos design for a pleated sheath dress in the Grecian style. The dresses were made of fine silk, dyed with vegetable dyes, hand-pleated using a technique that remains a mystery and held together with Murano glass beads. They turned the female body, of any size or shape, into a graceful column, and they were both elegant and extremely comfortable – though not, Byatt thinks, “sexy, either in 1910 or now”.

Fortuny saw his creations as works of art, and they were worn by women of highly evolved aesthetic sensibility: the dancer Isadora Duncan, the art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Byatt notes that Kay, the protagonist of Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, was buried in a Fortuny dress. She was not the only fictional character to wear Fortuny: his designs are a potent presence in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Of all the dresses owned by the narrator’s lover, Albertine, a Fortuny in blue and gold, lined in Tiepolo pink, is her favourite; when she leaves him, she takes with her only a dark blue Fortuny cloak.

In his lifetime, Morris was almost better known for his writing than for his designs. His literary output was as prodigious as his craft: a book about his journeys to Iceland; News from Nowhere, a pastoral utopian fantasy; translations of Icelandic epics and of a 16th-century Venetian book on the art of dyeing; an epic poem, “The Earthly Paradise” (vastly popular in his lifetime, but now almost unreadable, Byatt says: “The rhythms hack and bang”); as well as books and essays on art and design.

Pattern, Morris wrote in his 1881 lecture “Some Hints on Pattern Designing”, must possess “beauty, imagination and order”. It is here, in the tension between imagination and order, that Byatt finds the connections between her heroes that illuminate the work of each. In chapters on motifs that both men loved – pomegranates and birds – she explores the multitudinous ways in which they used them; the exhilarating collisions of naturalism and abstraction, the audacious juxtapositions of simplicity and complexity.

In considering this, she considers, too, the acts of making and looking. Both of her subjects, she says, were “obsessive workers, endlessly inventive, endlessly rigorous, endlessly beautiful”. They acknowledged no separation between art and labour, but made their lives and their work a seamless continuum; and, through the beauty they created, invited us to do the same.

“It is always surprising,” Byatt writes, “how people don’t really look at things.” But she does, and in this brilliant and tenderly observant little book, with its elegant Gill typeface and handsome colour illustrations, she celebrates the fruits of making and looking: “the endlessness of what is there to be imagined and shaped”. 

Peacock & Vine by A S Byatt is published by Chatto & Windus, 183pp, £14.99

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt