Morris & Fortuny
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Morris & Fortuny
A. S. Byatt. Peacock and Vine: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 182 pp. $26.95

THIS IS an elegant short book, fairly expensive, evocatively written and beautifully illustrated. It is of interest of course as being written by one of the best-known contemporary British writers who in The Children's Book of 2009 intersected with the world of William Morris. She clearly thinks very highly of Morris and vividly invokes him here, particularly in terms of his houses and his designs of textiles and wallpapers. And she is very present herself as she visits Red House that Morris had Philip Webb build for him in 1859–1860 in Bexleyheath. It is a house with timeless qualities, a promise for the future: houses that were simple and beautiful. So too an older simplicity could be found in Morris's beloved Kelmscott Manor, an Elizabethan house by the Thames. Byatt does not ignore the biographical aspects of the story, pointing out that Kelmscott Manor was jointly rented by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Morris in part so that Rossetti could pursue his affair with Jane Morris. Morris believed that emotions had to be followed where they might lead but nevertheless the affair pained him greatly and that was one reason he fled to Iceland for an extended trip. Rossetti's portrait of Jane is among the illustrations here. There are [End Page 401] also two of Edward Burne-Jones's caricatures of Morris that I believe are more affectionate and less hostile than Byatt contends. They are of Morris in his bath and climbing a mountain but not my favorite, one of Morris reading to Burne-Jones while he dozes. But her main interest, which she fulfills admirably, is a close discussion of his textiles and wallpapers, a selection ranging from "If I Can" (Morris's motto) of 1856–1857 to perhaps his most famous, "Strawberry Thief" of 1883. She pays particular attention to how he depicts birds, flowers, and pomegranates and enters persuasively into the texture of the works and their significance.

The connection between Morris and the designer Mariano Fortuny, Spanish born but resident in Venice, is a bit of stretch and is primarily driven by Byatt's own interests although she does point out the similarities beneath the apparent differences. She does not insist on how much they are alike although she is intriguing and largely convincing on their similar use of motifs, particularly the pomegranate, also used in Rossetti's portraits of Jane Morris. Fortuny is obviously much more a twentieth-century figure than Morris. (He was almost forty years younger, born in 1871 while Morris was born in 1834.) He comes from the sophisticated world of the Continent. They both had an extraordinary design ability for practical objects, in Morris's case his wide range of home furnishings, including furniture and in Fortuny's case not only his grand dresses and capes but a wide variety of lighting fixtures. His main activity was the designing of clothing for women. Morris was not very good with depicting figures and clothes as he recognized himself in his comment on his one very early oil painting, a portrait of his about-to-be wife Jane Burden as La Belle Iseult. As he said, he loved her but could not paint her. Morris and Fortuny shared an interest in Venice but in very different ways. Morris as an undergraduate at Oxford read Ruskin's The Stones of Venice and was heavily influenced, indeed shaped by it. Then years later he printed at the Kelmscott Press and wrote the powerful introduction to Ruskin's famous chapter from it on the Nature of Gothic. He pointed out that it was an essential text. It enunciated Morris's belief in the necessary connection between art and labor, labor created art. He was also very active in protesting the desecration of San Marco through restoration.

But Morris was a man of the north, of the sagas, of the German tribes, of a more austere world than the opulent and more sensual one occupied by Fortuny. They both loved the stories on which Wagner based...