I have been a fan of A. S. Byatt for many years, I believe the first book I read was one that contained Angels & Insects and then Possession. Both extremely thought provoking, and in some instances disturbing, but brilliantly written none the less. When I read that she had written a book on William Morris and Mariano Fortuny I was intrigued. I guess I thought it was going to be a fictionalized account of their lives (you know those are my favorite books!), I was wrong. It is an interesting, engaging account of these two artists in different countries and in different times. Actually, a review in The Guardian felt as a novel it would have been a better telling of their stories. I don’t know that I agree with that. I did learn a lot about William Morris (someone I have admired but not really done any research on) and continued to learn more about Fortuny, who has long been a favorite of mine. Both, of course, are known for their creative textiles, inventions and the new art each inspired. It is a slim volume but has so much information, I need to reread it to get every drop of knowledge it gives the reader. The book is heavily illustrated and contains an extensive “further reading” list.
William Morris and Mariano Fortuny
William Morris lived in England just outside London and his house inspired his fascinating floral and geometric patterns.
A William Morris floral vine and trellis pattern. Done during Victorian times at the beginning of the Arts and Crafts movement.
A fact I was not aware of was his wife, Jane, had a long love affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was obsessed with her and used her in many of his famous paintings.
I love the flow of the leaves, he was fascinated by flora and also by the River Thames, and always lived near it. The leaves, to me, look like waves. He, like, Fortuny made his own dyes for his fabrics and, of course, mixed his own paints.
I found this on Pinterest (along with most of the images I am using in this post) and I must say I would love to have a remnant of this or a piece of the paper. It is stunningly beautiful!
Fortuny was a Spanish aristocrat and eventually moved to Venice. I think most people think of him as making the famous “Delphos” gown using a yet to be duplicated pleating technique and having the gown flow against the body ending in a “puddle” at the feet of the wearer. These gowns are highly collectible and are often found on exhibition (The Art Institute of Chicago had an exhibition of Fortuny gowns several years ago…it was brilliant to see these treasures up close and personal!) In addition to these glorious pieces, Fortuny did incredible prints, sometimes doing layers of pattern over pattern, ingenious as well as beautiful, to say the very least. He is the only designer mentioned by Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past.
A “Delphos” gown. They were made to roll into themselves and not be hung. This from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Collection.
Tina Chow, a major collector of Fortuny as well as many Haute Couture designers, wearing one of Fortuny’s wraps with his hand painted motif. You can see more of the details of the embossed velvet pieces. When he was criticized for copying old vestments, he took out patents and issued disclaimers. All beautifully discussed, in great detail, in the book.
The pomegranate was prominent in both artists work, not necessarily in its color but rather in its shape and meaning.
Fortuny alongside some of his fabrics.
Even the labels were hand painted. Here you can see the intricacy of the pleating.
Byatt captures the essence of each of her subject, although they were born a generation apart she weaves their story together perfectly using Venice, its color, light, romance as the catalyst. One can only wonder what this story would have been as a novel! I thoroughly enjoyed the book and as I mentioned, I will need to reread it…it is written by a brilliant writer who draws you into the world she has totally researched and has examined and “paints” the story of these two geniuses, I think as they would want to be painted!
A.J. Byatt photo by Fabrizo Giraldi from the book.