Mariano Fortuny, William Morris, and Peter Lovesey

August 25, 2016 at 1:26 am (Art, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Several weeks ago, while subbing at the library, I came across this: 9781101947470. Though the book was unknown to me, the author was well known: Antonia Byatt, one of Britain’s greatest women of letters, author of the much loved 1990 Booker Prize winner Possession: A Romance. (Both my mother and my close friend Helene loved that book and urged it on me. For some reason, I found it unreadable, but I very much enjoyed this author’s 2003 collection Little Black Book of Stories. As for Possession, I’ve long considered the best thing about it to be its cover: 9780701132606-us-300 . The Beguiling of Merlin is a work by the great Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones: Beguiling_of_Merlin2 )

Back to Peacock & Vine: Before setting eyes on this small volume – Byatt calls it an essay; the illustrations are exquisite – I had only heard the name ‘Fortuny’ in connection with the title of a novel owned at one time by the library: GbF Byatt’s little book is subtitled “On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny.” Like most Anglophiles, I’m well acquainted with William Morris‘s work in painting and design. Fortuny, as I said above, I knew not at all.

mariano fortuny in djellaba

Born in Spain in 1849, Mariano Fortuny moved with his family to Paris when he was still a young child. When he was eighteen, the family moved again, this time to Venice. The city claimed Fortuny as its own; he lived there until his death in 1949.

He lived in a world of elegant parties, extravagant theatricals, carnival and opulence.

From Peacock & Vine

Despite the somewhat decadent, even sybaritic sound of Byatt’s description, Fortuny was anything but a dilettante. In fact, he was extraordinarily creative, excelling in numerous fields: painting, photography, architecture, invention, theatrical set design and lighting, and fashion. It is in that last category that he is probably best known today. His crowning creation in that field is the Delphos gown,  “based on the robes seen on male and female Greek statues such as the Kore of Euthydikos, the Kore of Samos, and the charioteer of Delphi.” It is this latter that’s the most famous:

The Delphos gown was made of sheer silk, densely pleated and sometimes adorned with glass beading. Owners were encouraged to store them thus:fortuny5 When unraveled, they looked like this: Museo_del_Traje_-_MT111882_-_VestidoThe pooling hemline probably made walking a challenge. Also, woman were encouraged to wear only the lightest of undergarments – if any.

How Fortuny achieved this pleating effect was something of a mystery at the time, and still is.

Lady Mary of Downton Abbey in a Fortuny gown

Lady Mary of Downton Abbey in a Fortuny gown

Fortuny also had a nice line in stenciled velvet gowns and  capes:

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute

This amazingly creative man patented more than twenty inventions between 1901 and 1934. He was also a painter:

Interno dell'atelier del pittore a palazzo Pesaro-Orfei a Venezia

Salon at the Palazzo Pesaro in Venice. This was the place that functioned as both home and workshop for Fortuny and his wife Henriette. [Click to enlarge]


Prove alla Scala di Milano

Ritratto di Henriette Fortuny in costume pompeiano (Henriette was Fortuny's wife; they worked as a team on many of his projects.)

Ritratto di Henriette Fortuny in costume pompeiano (Henriette was Fortuny’s wife; they worked as a team on many of his projects.)

Fortuny came by his gifts naturally: his father, Maria Fortuny i Marsal, born in 1838, was a gifted painter in his own right. (Maria Fortuny died in 1874, when his son Mariano was three years old.) Here are three of his works:

The Seller of Tapestries

The Seller of Tapestries, 1870


The Spanish Wedding, 1870

The Stamp Collector

The Stamp Collector, 1863


As I was approaching the end of Peacock & Vine, I had also begun reading Another One Goes Tonight, Peter Lovesey‘s latest Peter Diamond procedural. About a third of the way in, there’s a scene in which Diamond is searching a suspect’s workshop. (He’d obtained the key to the premises by subterfuge; he had no warrant and the suspect was in a coma at the time.) On a high shelf, he spots three funerary urns. He climbs up on a chair to investigate further. His prior assumption that the urns contain ashes proves erroneous. He takes one of them down and reaches inside:

A piece of fine, cream-colored silk was coiled to fit into the space.   He lifted it out and stepped down from the chair. The lightweight silk unfurled into a finely pleated, exquisitely tailored, full-length gown. In spite of the way the garment has been stored, there was scarcely a crease to be seen.

Diamond, no fashion maven, is not quite sure what to make of this find. So he presents one of the gowns  to his lady friend, Paloma Kean, for her appraisal. Paloma is an expert on period clothing and knows at once what Peter has placed before her.

By that point, so did I.

Fortuny had made a surprise appearance in my mystery novel! And this, just as I was first learning who he was.

William Morris has taken something of a back seat to Fortuny in this post, though he does not do so in Byatt’s book. So I’d like to insert here one of his most famous and beautiful wallpaper designs: “The Strawberry Thief:”


Unlike Mariano Fortuny, Morris was not lucky in his home life. His wife Jane Burden Morris, often called Janey, was in love with another man,  poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti; neither of them made any effort to disguise their mutual attraction.

William Morris

William Morris

Jane Burden Morris

Jane Burden Morris

Jane Morris as Proserpine, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

Jane Morris as Proserpine, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti


In the Wall Street Journal’s Review section of August 5, Willard Spiegelman expresses his awe and appreciation of The Charioteer of Delphi in an essay entitled “Beauty Takes a Victory Lap in This Masterpiece” (see image above).

Currently there exists an enterprise called The Original Morris and Company.  The same is true of Fortuny, on whose site you can find some excellent historical background.




  1. Kay Wisniewski said,

    The Fortuny photos were fortuitous because you posted them just as I was starting Chapter 2 of the latest Lovesey. I had a vauge mental picture of them as very pleated gowns, but your pictures are much lovelier. Thanks, Roberta.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      You’re most welcome, Kay!

  2. Pauline Cohen said,


    I’ve just seen your remark about “Possession” by A.S.Byatt. I urge you to try reading it again. It’s well worth the effort. I led a discussion on this book (several years ago), and the considerable effort it took to unravel the many threads of the narrative yielded great satisfaction.

    I hope my comments haven’t arrived too late, as I see you’re well into your September blog.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Hi, Pauline,
      Al comments are welcome and timely – especially yours. My recollection of POSSESSION is that I found Byatt’s prose style very off putting. However, perhaps I should take another look – sigh….

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