British writer A. S. Byatt has won several literary prizes for her fiction, including the Man Booker Prize. She’s an erudite woman whose favorite subjects in her biographical nonfiction and her fiction include art by all types of artists – playwrights and painters, fictional poets as in her novel “Possession” or real ones like Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth. So, it’s unsurprising that the subjects of her new book-length essay, “Peacock & Vine,” are artists: William Morris and Mariano Fortuny, whose art intertwined and intersected with their own lives. Byatt’s enthusiasm for her subjects is as intense as the passion Morris and Fortuny had for their art, which included the houses they lived and worked in.
Morris’s houses in England: The Red House and Kelmscott Manor, and Fortuny’s in Venice: Palazzo Pesaro Orfei – were each part of the work of their inhabitants. That sense of artistic completeness embodied in the houses is part of what attracted Byatt’s attention and admiration. She’s also enamored of their paintings and stained glass, the fabric and furniture designs, and even Morris’s poetry and prose.
To that end, Byatt’s book includes illustrations and photographs in black & white and in color of Morris and Fortuny, their wives, Jane and Henriette, and their homes, down to the wallpaper and fabric. Not only does Byatt include Morris’s poems about his houses and their furniture, she includes tangential quotations from Proust, sometimes in French and English. Detailed descriptions contribute to the book’s strength and to its weakness. Do we really need to know the woven illustration of a bird in near microscopic detail?—its “two flattish slabs, tapering towards the left end, on top of each other, with a beak shape at the top right.”
Byatt admits that when she began the essay she was more familiar with the Englishman Morris, whose art decorates her own home, than she was with Fortuny. She does, however, delight in Fortuny’s being the only living painter that Proust mentions in “À la recherche du temps perdu.” So, she uses Morris to help her understand the Spanish-born Fortuny and Fortuny to re-imagine Morris.
Byatt calls Morris and Fortuny “polymaths in the arts,” and writes: “They created their own surroundings, changed the visual world around them, studied the forms of the past and made them parts of new forms.”
Although Morris was born in 1834 and Fortuny about 35 years later, they shared a similar passion for art and craft, for beauty and nature. Byatt does point out a few distinct differences between the two men, although most of their artistic differences were insignificant. Each appreciated Nordic mythology. But Fortuny was deeply connected to the musical art of Richard Wagner and his operatic treatment of Nordic-Germanic myth, while Morris hated Wagner and spent his time on translating Nordic sagas. A more important difference was marriage. Fortuny was happily married to Henriette, who, even before they married, was his partner in all his work. Morris’s wife Jane, however, wasn’t even much of a marriage partner. She began an affair, which Morris tolerated, with the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Byatt writes: “Jane was the daughter of a stable hand, who had been discovered in a theatre by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Burne-Jones, who collected what they called ‘stunners,’ women of striking and unusual beauty.”
When she re-imagines Morris and Fortuny’s lives, by closing her eyes and finding her “head full of aquamarine light,” Byatt is best at intertwining lives and art. If you aren’t derailed by her sometimes microscopic detail and a few seeming digressions, much of Byatt’s exuberant writing about the art of Morris and Fortuny are intoxicating.
“Peacock & Vine On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny”
By A. S. Byatt
Knopf, 192 pages