‘Peacock & Vine’ by A. S. Byatt – The Designers: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny


‘Peacock & Vine’ by A. S. Byatt   (2016)  –  182 pages



Although my passion is fiction, I have been known to dabble in non-fiction once in a while.  However for a non-fiction book to appeal to me, it better not be mundane or prosaic, and the quality of the writing better be above average.  It helps if the book is written by a fiction writer whom I much admire like A. S. Byatt.

‘Peacock and Vine’ is a non-fiction book about two designers, William Morris and Mariano Fortuny.  William Morris was an English poet as well as a textile designer whose “green and flowery world” of Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, England is still open to the public.  Mariano Fortuny who was originally from Spain but moved to Venice in 1889 was an artist but mainly a fashion designer who designed dresses for the rich and famous women of his time.  His studio, now the Fortuny Museum in Venice, is still open to the public. Both Morris and Fortuny researched the use of certain dyes all the way back to the Middle Ages, dyes which were no longer in use in their time. I imagine A. S. Byatt decided to write this book about the two designers after touring the two places.   ‘Peacock & Vine’ is a high-quality work with many fine illustrations of the two designers’ work.

William Morris Image

William Morris Image

There is some question in my mind as to why these two men’s stories are combined together in the same book.  Apparently they never met, and they were of two different generations with Morris being born in 1834 and Fortuny being born in 1871.  Morris was a gentleman of the English country manor while Fortuny had his ornate studio in the city of Venice.  The only explanation Byatt gives for combining the two stories is as follows:

“They were both men of genius and extraordinary energy.  They created their own surroundings, changed the visual world around them, studied the forms of the past and made them parts of new forms.  In many ways they were opposites.”

Yes, not much in common for the English gentleman and the Italian aristocrat.  However they were both designers working with the materials around them, and I would never have read a book about designers if it had not been written by A. S. Byatt.  With all of the beautiful pictures included in ‘Peacock & Vine’, reading it is like touring both of these museums on the same afternoon.  It does save the expense of traveling to Oxfordshire, England and Venice, Italy.

Dresses designed by Mariano Fortuny

Dresses designed by Mariano Fortuny

Byatt does give an adept background of both men’s lives.  Before reading ‘Peacock & Vine’, I probably considered art to be mainly about splashing paint on a canvas like Rembrandt or Van Gogh.  I had never considered textile or fashion design as that much related to art.


Grade:   B+



4 responses to this post.

  1. Yes, I think so too, if AS Byatt wrote it, I want to read it!
    I still remember reading her for the first time, it was when she won the Booker, and I was blown away: I hadn’t known that people could write like that. My most recent reading was The Children, which was such a pleasure to read, I was on a high for days afterwards.



    • Hi Lisa,
      ‘Peacock & Vine’ is very much in the spirit of a museum tour and did not remind me at all of A. S. Byatt’s fiction. However it is a well-done museum tour, and I learned a lot about these two men of whom I knew nothing.
      Although I’ve read several of the fiction works of Byatt, I haven’t read ‘The Children’. I must make room for it. ‘Posession’ was of course wonderful.



      • I’m interested in Morris: I’m not sure how I came to hear about him first, but I was enchanted when I saw the William Morris exhibition at the V&A and I have a dim recollection that he has an interesting life.



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