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Across the seven volumes of the Recherche, Proust mentions only one living artist by name — the fashion designer Mariano Fortuny. “Is it their historical character, or is it rather the fact that each one of them is unique,” Marcel wonders about Fortuny’s creations,

that gives them so special a significance that the pose of the woman who is wearing one while she waits for you to appear or while she talks to you assumes an exceptional importance, as though the costume had been the fruit of a long deliberation and your conversation was somehow detached from everyday life like a scene in a novel?

Marcel buys many presents for his captive lover, Albertine, but when she leaves she takes with her only the blue Fortuny cloak.

A model wearing a Delphos gown designed by Mariano Fortuny, c. 1920 © Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia/Archivio Museo Fortuny

A model wearing a Delphos gown designed by Mariano Fortuny, c. 1920 © Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia/Archivio Museo Fortuny

Granadan by birth and Venetian by palazzo, Fortuny dressed royalty, nobility, and the likes of Eleanora Duse, Isadora Duncan, and Peggy Guggenheim. He specialized in unstructured, pleated, and often sheer gowns that were meant to be worn over a shift or, in the bedroom, nothing at all. They liberated women from the asphyxiation of whalebone, but their hemlines, which reached four to six inches in front of the toes, made perambulation a challenge. Susan Sontag, who in life always wore pants, found the perfect occasion for a Fortuny. She wore one to her funeral.

Fortuny appears as the lesser-known half of a patient, delighting, and penetrating book-length essay by A. S. Byatt, PEACOCK & VINE: ON WILLIAM MORRIS AND MARIANO FORTUNY (Knopf, $26.95). The English socialist and the cosmopolitan aristocrat were born forty years apart and had a little in common: both were craftsmen and inventors; both experimented with fabrics and vegetable dyes; both specialized in crowded but well-ordered patterns of birds, fruit, fronds, creepers, and acanthus; and both were “obsessive workers” who “made the place where they lived identical with the place where they worked.” What Morris and Fortuny really share, however, is that they both obsess Byatt.

Top to bottom: A woodblock print of William Morris’s Peacock and Dragon textile design, 1878 © GraphicaArtis/Bridgeman Images; design, in watercolor and pencil, for Morris’s Acanthus wallpaper, 1874 © V&A Images, London/Art Resource, New York City

Top to bottom: A woodblock print of William Morris’s Peacock and Dragon textile design, 1878 © GraphicaArtis/Bridgeman Images; design, in watercolor and pencil, for Morris’s Acanthus wallpaper, 1874 © V&A Images, London/Art Resource, New York City

She identifies intriguing points of connection, nodes that branch into enlightening contrasts, rather like Morris’s Peacock and Dragon pattern, whose swooping curves simultaneously hide and reveal the motions of its strutting, slithering creatures. Take, for example, the two artists’ shared interest in the Nibelungenlied, the medieval German epic on which Wagner’s Ring cycle is based. Fortuny — who also designed sets and lighting for the composer — made a brooding, deliriously romantic painting of Siegmund and Sieglinde clasped in each other’s arms, with a muscled Sieglinde wrapped in “agitated transparent veiling.” In his garden, Morris clipped Fafnir the dragon into a prim, orderly topiary.

That shrub still embellishes the grounds of Kelmscott Manor, the property that Morris leased with a friend, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Morris said he hoped for Kelmscott to be a retreat for his family, but, as Byatt puts it, “He was perhaps also trying to find somewhere where” the romance between Rossetti and Morris’s wife, Jane, “would be less visible.” The two had a long affair, and Rossetti made her the subject of fifty-seven studies, “always with the same large, red, hungry, mournful mouth.” Henry James recalled meeting the Morrises in 1868 — William reciting poetry in “his flowing antique numbers” and Jane, with her “Swinburnian eyes” and “great thick black oblique brows,” reclining on the sofa, “this dark silent medieval woman with her medieval toothache.” According to James, Rossetti’s portraits only seemed “strange and unreal” until you saw the woman in the flesh.

In their investigations of old and even ancient craft techniques, Fortuny and Morris were restlessly innovative. In addition to making bursting, sylvan wallpapers and textiles and writing novels, poems, and essays, Morris embroidered, created typefaces, and invented a special paper for his printing press. Fortuny, who was also a painter and photographer, took out more than fifty patents. For the theater, he invented a method of reflecting lighting that allowed him to “compose the setting onstage, conducting light as one conducts music.” (It is thanks to him that lighting artists sit in special booths.) He also designed furniture, lamps, a new kind of photographic paper, and tools; none of this, however, mitigated accusations that he was a copyist who stole patterns from religious garments and ancient Greek artifacts.

Peacock & Vine eschews argument for anecdote, lush description, and telling juxtaposition. Byatt quotes the scholar Peter Collier, for whom the issue of Fortuny’s originality is quite beside the point. As Collier puts it, Proust “sets his derivative dress-designer, Fortuny, at the apex of creativity,” making him, like the phoenix, an emblem for the recovery of time.

These Fortuny gowns, one of which I had seen Mme de Guermantes wearing, were those of which Elstir, when he told us about the magnificent garments of the women of Carpaccio’s and Titian’s day, had prophesied the imminent return, rising from their ashes, as magnificent as of old, for everything must return in time, as it is written beneath the vaults of St. Mark’s, and proclaimed, as they drink from the urns of marble and jasper of the Byzantine capitals, by the birds which symbolise at once death and resurrection.

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