Published in November 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Reading writers’ estimations of other artists sometimes feels decadent, like eating a whole box of chocolates in one sitting. Such is the sensation of reading AS Byatt’s latest volume, Peacock and Vine: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny, in which the novelist takes readers into the lives of an English designer and a Spanish couturier from the 19th century, both of whom have intrigued and inspired her. Via this resplendent volume, thick with reproductions of their work, Byatt explores the tenuous relationship between nature and creation, tradition and reinvention.
Morris’s simple but painstaking textile designs embodied his belief that art must not simply replicate the natural world but invest its chaos with an order that “invents the beautiful.” The appeal of this aesthetic premise to Byatt the novelist is evident; the act of lifting from life, and imposing order to create something new, is also a summation of the novelist’s craft.
The work of Mariano Fortuny, a Spanish couturier who experimented with exotic fabrics and dyes in his Venetian studio, bears different charms. The meticulous creation of a Fortuny scarf, cape or gown is also an mélange, the resurrection of ancient patterns wed to an iconoclastic abandonment of the corseted feminine form of the gowns of the era. There is a flirtation with freedom here, a suggestion that the endurance of tradition is predicated on its reinvention. The charm of Peacock and Vine lies in us overhearing a writer letting us in…