Book Review: Peacock and Vine

I just recently read this wonderful book, Peacock and Vine by A.S. Byatt. I had never read any of her work but I've always been intrigued by her writing from one statement she is said to have made in terms of writing. To paraphrase, she said she loved her husband and her children immensely, but that she could not love them fully if she didn't dedicate herself fully to her work every day as well. For an introduction to any author, I thought that was a powerful thing to say and when I first heard it some years ago when I was trying to decide whether the creative path was the way, it resonated with me on a deeper level and felt like she was giving me permission to create.

Peacock and Vine by A.S. Byatt

I finally decided to read one of her books, and this one isn't a novel but rather an essay on the lives of the designers William Morris (London) and Mariano Fortuny (Venice). William Morris was a prominent figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 1800s, and is most recognized as a textile designer, although he did many other things. Mariano Fortuny is known as a fashion designer, but I think he's more of an artist with textiles; he did natural dying and woodblock printing on fine velvets and silks.


I think what I loved about this book was how she described each designer's passion for making quality goods. William Morris being connected with the Arts and Crafts Movement, was concerned about the loss of quality due to the Industrial Revolution. He believed that many of the traditional crafts were going to be lost to the mechanization of certain techniques. The Arts and Crafts Movement was concerned with the homogenization of product design, and therefore the loss of individuality and uniqueness. A prime example of the Arts and Crafts Movement is William Morris' Red House where he and his colleagues designed the exterior house and then made furniture to fit every nook just perfectly. They, and he, became pioneers in the revival of some these old school ways of creating furniture, art, and textiles.


Mariano Fortuny was born after William Morris, and therefore had a slightly different point of view on art, but was still very much interested in creating high-quality textiles. He and his wife, Henriette, printed on fine velvets and silks which they dyed themselves using natural dyes. Each of the natural dyes were made from formulas which they either revived from studying antique textiles, or came up with themselves. They carved woodblocks to stamp dyes on to the textiles. Fortuny used a language of presupposed patterns that he had found either by collecting textiles from around the world, or from books which he collected. He had quite an amazing library of patterns and designs which he traced and used in his work.


A theme that came up several times in Byatt's essay was about how Fortuny played with light and how Morris played with color, and how they both played with patterning. She says, "to think about Fortuny is to think about light. Light reflected from silk and velvet--and flesh--light on water and stone, airy light, dense light, almost infinitely varied colored light." Before reading that quote, I just had the thought about how important light is to artists, they're always talking about the sun, but not the light on something, but rather the light from a specific place. I was thinking about my teacher in Florence and how obsessed he was with lighting. His studio and shop were extremely dark, but he was always creating a new lighting system, connecting wires, finding objects that would reflect light. I also thought about Georgia O'Keefe. She had a relationship to the light and colors of New Mexico and how much it influenced her work. I found these thoughts inspiring, and was reflecting on my own relationship to the sunlight in the area where I live. It felt coincidental that Byatt brought up this concept on the importance of light in their work.


Here's a review on the book if you're interested in reading it. If you understand Spanish, this is an incredibly good lecture about both Morris and Fortuny. If you're interested in the textile industry in Venice, this is an excellent introduction, plus they mentioned Fortuny at the end of the intro and you get to see his palace and workspace.


Here's an example of one of William Morris' patterns. He drew these by hand, carved the woodblocks and created prints of them as well, just like Mariano Fortuny.


The Strawberry Thief

Here's an example of Fortuny's textiles:

Printed Brocade Velvets and Pleated Silks

Finding my own ways to play with the concept of light and color. How to capture it, what does it mean to me? How does it influence my work?


Anyway, that's it for now. Thanks for reading!

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