Here is a glorious little book, two essays really, that is deeply cheering about the capacity of humans to be makers and to learn new skills throughout their lives.
A S Byatt says she ‘can’t hear music’ and all the passion and sensual pleasure many of us take from music she gets from colour and form. The artists and creators she writes about are William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. Reading this made me want to rush off to Kelmscott House to see the works of William Morris and to Venice to see the Fortuny museum.
Byatt has loved the work of William Morris for a long time. She has Morris wallpaper in her kitchen, Morris tea-towels, and even sits on a Morris cushion. But she also gives poignant glimpses into Morris’ life. His wife, Janey, taken over by Rosetti, Morris himself, his plumpness made fun of by Burne-Jones in little sketches, his voyaging in Iceland when his life at Kelmscott House become too difficult with the relationship between Rosetti and Janey. But Morris grew to love Iceland. He learned Icelandic and translated some of the Sagas. His life is devoted to learning and developing his skills in design. He taught his daughter May to embroider by unpicking ancient tapestries to see how they were made. His colour and patterning are quite beautiful, and his designs still sold as fabrics and wallpaper.
Fortuny, whose work was new to Byatt, had the same inexhaustible flow of ideas and capacity to work. His wife Henriette was a dressmaker and worked with him on every aspect of his production. His passion for textiles began when he was a child and used to rummage through his mother’s collection of ancient textiles. here is a description of her collection in a book by Henri de Regnier, quoted by Byatt,
She made her first purchase in Spain: a blood-red piece of old velvet, embellished with pomegranates… A fine piece of dark blue velvet made in the fifteenth century, goffered with stylish arabesques. The shade is strange, deep and pure, like the colour of night.
Fortuny designed dresses with a pleat that was unique to his work. It is still not clear how these fine permanent pleats were made. (I couldn’t help thinking that this is where Issy Miyake got his idea for his ‘pleats please’ collection.) Famous women and aristocrats wore his light diaphanous dresses based on Greek sculpture, but the most famous wearer of Fortuny was Albertine in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. here is a description of her Fortuny cloak,
It swarmed with Arabic ornaments, like Venice, like the Venetian palaces hidden like sultan’s wives behind a screen of pierced stone, like the bindings in the Ambrosian library, like the columns from which the oriental birds that symbolised alternately life and death were repeated in the mirror of the fabric, of an intense blue which, as my gaze extended over it, was changed into a malleable gold, by those same transmutations which, before the advancing gondola, change into flaming metal the azure of the Grand Canal. And the sleeves were lined with a cherry pink, which is so peculiarly Venetian that it is called Tiepolo pink.
A celebration of colour and creativity manifested by two quite different sensibilities. This little book is a must read for those who love such things.