The Magic Apple Tree
The Fitzwilliam Museum
Cambridge, no. 1490
... AS SEEN BY A. S. BYATT
I have chosen these two paintings – Samuel Palmer’s The Magic Apple Tree and Henri Fantin-Latour’s White cup and saucer – because together they represent the way in which I think about art. They are both opposed and oddly related in my mind.
As a student at Cambridge I was struck by a sentence in Sir Philip Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie. He was saying that poetry was more wonderful than the natural world – an idea I had never met.
Nature never set forth the earth in so rich a tapestry, as divers Poets have done, neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet smelling flowers: nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely.
My relation with teacups is ambivalent. For one thing, I don’t like tea. For another, they represent to me a kind of domestic trap which yawned for women of my generation – cooking and washing-up and teatable chatter.
But I am descended from generations of potters from the Five Towns, and have acquired an increasing interest in the ‘mystery’ of craftmanship. The white teacup is a beautifully crafted painting about a beautifully crafted cup, saucer and spoon. William Blake, a visionary, wrote ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear as it is, infinite.’ Fantin-Latour looked at that teacup. And when I look it starts becoming infinite, light in dark. Auden wrote ‘the crack in the teacup opens / A lane to the land of the dead’. There is a wonderful poem by Czeslaw Milosz, Song of porcelain, about smashed teacups after the passage of an army.
The ground everywhere is strewn
With bits of brittle and froth –
Of all things broken and lost
The porcelain troubles me most.
[translated by Robert Pinsky]
I have noticed teacups getting into my work, as a symbol of fragile civilisation. I wrote a short story about a Cambridge undergraduate who carelessly smashes the rose-coloured teacups she inherited from her mother. At the end of a tale about spiritualism – The Conjugial Angel - I put a seemingly endless paragraph about the almost infinite complexity of all the processes and materials that go into the provision of a simple cup of tea. And a central character in the novel I am writing is a potter – so I am learning about clay and glazes and kilns and furnaces – again almost infinitely complicated. The two paintings are finished still works about processes endlessly in motion.
Dame Antonia (Susan) Byatt (Dame Antonia Duffy) FRSL (b. 1936)
Born in Yorkshire in 1936, A. S. Byatt was educated at Sheffield High School, the Mount School in York and at Newnham College, Cambridge. She then continued her studies in English and American Literature at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and conducted research on literary allusion and Renaissance iconography at Somerville College, Oxford. An extra-mural lecturer for the University of London from 1962 to 1971, Byatt also taught at the Central School of Art and Design from 1965 to 1969 and at University College London from 1972 to 1983. Having published several novels, as well as critical studies of Iris Murdoch and Wordsworth and Coleridge, she then left academia to write full-time.
Byatt's first novel, Shadow of the Sun, was published in 1964. The story of a young girl dominated by her father, it was followed by The Game in 1967, a novel about the relationship between two sisters, one an Oxford don, the other a popular writer. The Virgin in the Garden followed in 1978. The first book in a quartet of novels chronicling provincial life from the 1950s, it was based on a Yorkshire family and continued in Still Life, taking the sequel up to 1980, the year of the Post-Impressionist exhibition in London. Awarded the PEN / Macmillan Silver Pen Award in 1986, Babel Tower (1996) and A Whistling Woman (2002) completed this series of novels. Byatt’s most successful work to date is Possession: A Romance, published in 1990. The interwoven narrative of two Victorian poets and two twentieth-century academics researching them, Possession won the Booker Prize and Irish Times International Fiction Prize in 1990 and a Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1991. Directed by Neil LaBute, Possession was adapted as a film in 2002. Also very successful was Angels & Insects, published in 1992. Consisting of two novellas, The Conjugial Angel, an investigation into Victorian attitudes to death and mourning, and Morpho Eugenia, the story of a young Victorian explorer and his relationship with the daughter of his employer, the book was also adapted as a film, directed by Philip Haas and released in 1996. Another major novel was The Biographer's Tale, published in 2000. The story about a graduate student disenchanted with postmodern literary theory and now a biographer, it takes the reader from the Sahara to the Antarctic and takes a provocative look at ‘truth’ in biography and our search for certainty.
Equally well-known for her short stories and criticism, Byatt has repeatedly been inspired by works of art. The Matisse Stories, published in 1993, featured three stories, each describing a painting by Henri Matisse, and Portraits in Fiction, published in 2001, take further a subject she first explored in a lecture given at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2000.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1983 and appointed CBE in 1990 and DBE in 1999, Byatt was Chairman of the Society of Authors from 1986 to 1988 and a member of the Literature Advisory Panel for the British Council from 1990 to 1998. Awarded an honorary Litt.D. by Cambridge University in 1999, she was extended the same honour by Oxford University in 2007. A writer of international repute, Byatt was awarded the Shakespeare Prize in Germany in 2002 and the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France in 2003.
Married, firstly, to Sir Ian Byatt and now to Peter John Duffy, A. S. Byatt lives in London.
A.S. Byatt, Shadow of the Sun, Chatto & Windus, 1964
A.S. Byatt, Degrees of Freedom: The Early Novels of Iris Murdoch, Chatto & Windus, 1965
A.S. Byatt, The Game, Chatto & Windus, 1967
A.S. Byatt, Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time, Nelson, 1970
A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch: A Critical Study, Longman, 1976
A.S. Byatt, The Virgin in the Garden, Chatto & Windus, 1978
A.S. Byatt, Still Life, Chatto & Windus, 1985
A.S. Byatt, Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge – Poetry and Life, Hogarth Press, 1989
A.S. Byatt, Possession: A Romance, Chatto & Windus, 1990
A.S. Byatt, Angels & Insects, Chatto & Windus, 1992
A.S. Byatt, The Matisse Stories, Chatto & Windus, 1993
A.S. Byatt, Babel Tower, Chatto & Windus, 1996
A.S. Byatt, The Biographer's Tale, Chatto & Windus, 2000
A.S. Byatt, Portraits in Fiction, Chatto & Windus, 2001
A.S. Byatt, A Whistling Woman, Chatto & Windus, 2002