Author(s): A. S. Byatt
This ravishing book opens a window onto the lives, designs, and passions of two charismatic artists. Born a generation apart, they were seeming opposites: Mariano Fortuny, a Spanish aristocrat thrilled by the sun-baked cultures of Crete and Knossos; William Morris, a British craftsman, in thrall to the myths of the North. Yet through their revolutionary inventions and textiles, both men inspired a new variety of art, as vibrant today as when it was first conceived. Acclaimed writer A.S. Byatt traces their genius right to the source.
The Palazzo Pesaro Orfei in Venice is a warren of dark spaces leading to a workshop where Fortuny created his designs for pleated silks and shining velvets. Here he worked alongside the French model who became his wife and collaborator, including on the 'Delphos' dress - a flowing gown evoking classical Greece.
Morris's Red House, outside London, with its Gothic turrets and secret gardens, helped inspire his stunning floral and geometric patterns; it also represented a coming together of life and art. But it was Kelmscott Manor in the English countryside that he loved best - even when it became the setting for his wife's love affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Generously illustrated with the artists' beautiful designs - pomegranates and acanthus, peacock and vine - A.S. Byatt brings the visions and ideas of Fortuny and Morris dazzlingly to life.
Byatt teases out the similarities and contrasts between two multifaceted makers, who each gave their name to famous brands, in this late-life meditation on the values of art. All admirers of AS Byatt’s writing are aware of her profound intellectual awareness of the visual coexisting with an almost childlike delight in the colours and tactilities of everyday life.
This is a small book but, in its enchanting way, it brings together so many of the themes of Byatt’s larger and more obviously ambitious works. “I like looking at colours,” she tells us. “It is always surprising how people don’t really look at things.” How right she is. Through concentrating on the interlocking worlds of Morris and Fortuny she makes a great defence of the values of art.
-Fiona McCarthy, The Guardian