A S Byatt has always braided her fictions with the fine arts, music and theatre. But increasingly she has become the Pindar of object-making, something especially marked in The Children’s Book, with its insights into high-minded, free-thinking creativity and political endeavour on the eve of the Great War. Byatt follows her characters deep into the arts and crafts of Edwardian England and Wilhelmine Germany and offers the reader the entire Victoria & Albert Museum as a utopian project. If that were not enough, in writing of uncanny verisimilitude, she gives us a dazzling account of the experience of visiting the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. An understanding of craftsmanship allows Byatt to capture the artistry of ceramics, textiles and radical puppetry. Nor is she afraid of a playful engagement with the language of technique, her thinking recalibrated through important friendships with figures such as the potter Edmund de Waal and the glass artist Anthony Stern. As she said in a recent interview, ‘The older I get, the more I find that the people I love the most are makers – homo faber.’ This could be seen as a return to roots – to her mother’s family, the Bloors of Derby. But it is also part of a fascination with the fate of objects – with what has been called ‘the social life of things’.
Her latest book is not, however, a work of fiction but a thoughtful exercise in parallel biography, focusing on the lives of William Morris (1834–96) and the textile and dress designer Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo (1871–1949). Before reading Peacock & Vine, it would not have occurred to me to draw the comparison. Morris, despite Nikolaus Pevsner claiming him as a pioneer of the modern movement, was a Victorian design reformer, albeit one who sought revolutionary political change. Fortuny’s career, by contrast, was distinctly 20th century in character, part of the overlooked story of decorative modernism, his work closer in spirit to that of Diaghilev and Paul Poiret. But by putting Morris and Fortuny side by side, Byatt celebrates their differences as much as their surprising affinities. She tells her story deceptively simply. We are given two lives as well as something approaching a miniature autobiography, for in following the twists and turns of her research we come closer to Byatt herself.
On a visit to Venice to pursue her interest in Fortuny, Byatt came to realise that her writing invariably begins ‘with a moment of sudden realisation that two things I have been thinking about separately are parts of the same thought, the same work’. Watching water flow over marble, she found herself thinking of England. She reflected on Morris in order to understand Fortuny. Opposites proved illuminating: north and south, English meadows and Venetian Gothic. Morris’s and Fortuny’s childhoods, upbringings and interests could hardly have been less alike. But Morris’s blighted marriage to Jane Burden is brought into sharper focus when Byatt examines Fortuny’s comradely closeness to his wife, Henriette. Fortuny’s Venetian milieu might appear opulent and worldly, but privately he and Henriette led austere lives. Poor Morris, who wrote so vividly of simple living, was outfaced in happy domesticity by Fortuny.
Nor were their homes and workshops very alike. Morris’s brick turreted Red House, now surrounded by suburbs, secretive, ancient Kelmscott Manor, foursquare Georgian Kelmscott House on Upper Mall in Hammersmith and his workshops at Merton Abbey on the River Wandle all appear utterly remote from the Palazzo Pesaro in Venice, which Fortuny rescued from picturesque decay. Yet both men created remarkable interiors. The drawing room at Kelmscott House, with Morris’s Bird wall-hangings and Peacock and Dragon curtains, and the piano nobile at the Palazzo Fortuny are both what the architectural historian Robert Harbison called ‘dreaming rooms’, even if Fortuny operated on a grander scale, restoring the palazzo’s large original spaces, which were characterised by a darkness that ‘dazzled’ Byatt on her visit.
Both men were inventive, but if Morris sought simple construction and looked to nature for his patterns, some aspects of Fortuny’s inventiveness came closer to the anonymity of industrial design, encompassing electric lighting, the science of photography, a patent hat stand and concealed stage lighting – his ‘système d’éclairage scénique pour lumière indirecte’ that was eventually produced as a kit of parts by AEG in Berlin.
As Byatt reveals, they approached the interests they shared differently. Both were drawn to Nordic myths and sagas, but Fortuny came to them through Wagner, a composer Morris abhorred but whose operas inspired Fortuny’s lighting experiments. (Morris disliked opera – ‘the most rococo and degraded of all forms of art’ – and hated the idea of ‘a sandy-haired German tenor tweedledeeing over the unspeakable woes of Sigurd’.) Both were attracted by earlier, pre-industrial worlds. But Fortuny, like other modernists, pushed that earliness back to the archaic. He took in the pre-Raphael Renaissance, but was also drawn to Minoan Crete and Sir Arthur Evans’s recreation of Knossos as a peaceful, matriarchal society of bull-leapers and dancing girls, complete with Ariadne’s ‘dancing floor’. Citing Cathy Gere’s remarkable book Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, Byatt notes how fitting it was that Isadora Duncan, on a visit to Knossos in 1910, abandoned herself to dance on Evans’s reconstructed palace steps, most probably wearing a Fortuny dress.
Fortuny is now perhaps most famous for his silk Delphos dresses. They take us a long way from the anti-classical Morris: they were inspired by the Charioteer of Delphi, a bronze sculpture excavated in 1896. Designed to be worn directly on the skin, inventively dyed and pleated using a secret process, the dresses were sold in specially designed boxes, wound into a spiral. They float up in the writings of D’Annunzio and Proust as emblematic of allure. But they were easy to wear, being beautifully constructed (rather like Issey Miyake’s pleated clothes). In that regard they may be seen in the context of dress reform, something to which Morris’s wife and other women in his circle subscribed.
Byatt observes that the sensuality of Fortuny’s ‘transparent ochre silk gauze, printed in silver plant motifs and worn next to the skin’ was strikingly remote from Morris’s wallpapers, tapestries and furnishing fabrics. Nonetheless, the two men drew on similar, cross-cultural motifs, explored by Byatt in chapters on the pomegranate and on paired and intertwined birds. But Fortuny’s world of pattern was much more catholic, closer to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form than to Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament.
Fortuny’s printed textiles have been read as a ‘Benjaminian layering of historical times’. Morris’s patterns were hardly simple. But at some level they are more innocent: ‘I must have unmistakeable suggestions of gardens and fields, and strange trees, boughs and tendrils.’ Morris, Byatt tells us, was ill at ease with the human form and on a practical level it is difficult to imagine him trading in sensual silk gowns, businessman though he was.
Byatt ends this fascinating and original book with affinities and differences – with the birds, branching fruit, heraldic figures and starbursts on a Fortuny dress in the Museo del Traje, Madrid, and with Morris’s jacquard-woven Peacock and Dragon design, inspired by Sicilian textiles in the V&A. Both are richly historicist designs. But Fortuny’s printed silk dress moves on the body, taking its wearer into society with all the body’s imperfections. Morris’s woollen twill had a different function, adorning houses like Kelmscott Manor, part of a project to keep worldliness and fashion at bay.