This review is reproduced here by kind permission of H-Museum, which first published it in August 2004. The original text has been reformatted for the Victorian Web, and illustrated with modern photographs and scanned images by Jacqueline Banerjee, who has also added captions and links. Click on all the images to enlarge them, and for more information where available.
Red House from its garden: side gate.
"If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer, A beautiful House," William Morris (1834-1896) wrote in 1892. This was 33 years after he had commissioned from the architect Philip Webb (1831-1915), in 1859, what the British National Trust calls in its leaflet "one of the most influential buildings in the history of domestic architecture and garden design": Red House, in Bexleyheath, Kent, now part of Greater London, and open to the public since 2003.
The historic significance of the house is stressed by the very competent and enthusiastic volunteer guide (only pre-booked guided tours are allowed) at the start of the visit: all modern design movements are somehow associated with foreign parts (Art nouveau, Bauhaus, etc.) — except the Arts & Crafts, whose British origin is indisputable. And it is equally indisputable that Red House is the first building designed according to what were to become the canons of that movement.
Trellis design. Source: Vallance, following p. 88.
The visit starts with the exterior, viewed from the different gardens. The gardens themselves are important in several ways. The trellis work which Morris installed is said to have inspired his famous "Trellis" wallpaper — his earliest design for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. The south garden has an old, shaky "Lutyens" bench — an apparent anachronism except that, the guide tells us, Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) and Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) were immensely admirative of William Morris's pioneering work in garden design and consequently enormously influenced by his conceptions, notably the idea that native British plants and trees were more than enough to create a fine garden, which was then totally unfashionable as a Victorian "gentleman" had to have the rarest exotic species around his mansion. Few of the original plantations have survived, with the possible exception of a gigantic crab apple tree at the back — but the lay-out, with its different compartments separated by brick walls, has largely remained intact (though the garden shed was transformed into an air-raid shelter during the Second World War — a detail of historic significance in a different way).
Left to right: (a) The north side of Red House, from the angle at which it is usually photographed. (b) The entrance to the porch, in which the wall tiling, decorated by Morris, carries his "Si je puis" motto in the pattern (see below). (c) A closer view of the "medieval well," so important to the atmosphere here.
The north side of the house, where the guided viewing of the exterior terminates, is the one which figures on all photographs of Red House, viz. the "rest garden" with the mediaeval well in front of the porch opening into the back door (normally, the visit of the inside should start there, but at the moment there are unsafe cracks in the brickwork of the porch, and the front door is used instead). The water from the well was actually used in Morris's time (he lived there from 1860-65, when the commuting to central London, where he had his "Firm," became too much for his failing health), with a hand pump feeding the kitchen taps. In glorious August sunshine, the patina of the red bricks (curiously, the brick has not turned black and grimy, as in so many 19th c. buildings) appears in all its splendour, with the slightly browning red tiles on the steep roofs (another "novelty" in Victorian times), fully justifying the name of the house. From that rest garden, one can admire the various window arches and the porch with their "bishop's mitre" shapes so obviously derived from Gothic buildings. One can also see the alignment of the bull's eyes windows whose decorated glass details will be better examined from the inside. Not a building stone in sight, even for the well: again, the contrast is glaring with the Victorian "gentleman," who had his house built of stone — unlike the working man, who lived in red brick tenements.
Left to right: (a) The oak staircase: "a solid fence of tongue-and-groove boards with deliberately disproportionate small holes to catch the eye." Illustration source: Vallance 45. (b) The dining-room's "original massive canopied dresser," designed by Philip Webb. Illustration source: Vallance 48. (c) Red House landing: notice the exposed brickwork, and abstract stencilled ceiling pattern. Illustration source: Vallance 50.
The visit of the interior starts with the Entrance Hall, and one is immediately struck by another "unusual" feature of Red House: all fireplaces are in elaborate brickwork (red, of course), with complicated curved, mitred and angled joints — displaying the art of the brick-layer at its best. There is no mantelpiece. In the same vein, the large ogive or bishop's mitre-shaped arches above the doors display equally elaborate joints — with the red brick of course deliberately left apparent, not plastered over as had then become normal practice in "high-class" work.
Facing the fireplace is an original canopied cupboard-cum-settee whose story, like the air-raid shelter, reminds the visitor of the Second World War, when Red House was used by the National Assistance Board. The NAB people painted the cupboard brown, apparently totally unmoved by William Morris's original decoration. Two central doors are now partially restored and described as a scene inspired from Malory, "Sir Lancelot bringing Sir Tristam and the Belle Iseult to Joyous Guard." As is often the case with Morris's paintings (and those of his friends), the sitters are part of the family and group (the "joyous guard" in question) — notably Jane Morris (his wife) and Burne-Jones and his wife. Facing the entrance door (with modern glass mosaic by Anthony Holloway), one sees the oak Staircase with the underside of the steps left apparent ("wealthy" Victorian home owners of course had them panelled or covered in some way, with plaster or other materials), and no balusters to support the hand rail: instead, a solid fence of tongue-and-groove boards with deliberately disproportionate small holes to catch the eye.
A canopied settle of similar design to this one (now at the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow) once stood in the Dining Room here.
Before going upstairs, one goes to the Dining Room, which has kept its original massive wooden canopied dresser by Philip Webb lacquered in "dragon's blood," with tinned metal fitments. Like all rooms in Red House, the walls and ceiling are covered in a mixture of whitewash, Morris wallpaper and Morris hangings. Just above, on the first floor, was the Drawing Room, with the same generous proportions. Again, one entire wall is occupied by a large (original) cupboard-cum-settee designed by Morris, with a flat canopy made accessible by a step ladder (a "tongue-in-cheek" addition by Webb: a trap door at the top of the wall, just level with the canopy, led to the loft and this ladder added to the practicality of the piece of furniture).
This settle, with doors of tongue-and-groove boards and large wrought iron hinges like the trap door on the wall above, is lacquered in off-white. An incongruous later addition is a low, elongated central heating radiator located underneath the seat. The room, which Morris meant to be "the most beautiful room in England" also has original murals by Burne-Jones and a remarkable motto, fully applicable to William Morris, above the very tall fireplace (the room itself appears very tall because most of the slopes of the roof above have been kept, with the frame and rafters left visible): "Ars Longa, Vita Brevis."
Morris's motto, "Si Je Puis" in the wall tiling of the porch.
This is fact was not William Morris's own motto, which was "Si je puis" and forms a major feature of the landing (called the Corridor) leading to the first-floor rooms. The three bull's eye windows giving light to the Corridor are filled with glass decorated by Morris, including repeat patterns of "Si je puis" inscribed in ribbon shapes. Above the Corridor and Staircase, the tall tower roof frame has been left visible, with — it is believed — original (but darkened and faded) paintwork by Morris, after a Byzantine motif, on the plaster between the beams. Also open to visitors (the rest of the first floor is occupied by a resident custodian) is Morris's Studio, with little left of the original décor, and the Morrises' Bedroom, with a "mystery" original mural hidden behind a later cupboard and then covered in wallpaper. What did the mural represent? Who deliberately mutilated it? The National Trust has opened a public subscription to raise the funds to investigate the first question. Some of the original mural has been carefully and partially uncovered — it may have been painted by Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti's wife, in 1861, a year before her disguised suicide.
On this and other occasions, including the visit of the gardens, the guide explained the dilemma for the National Trust: it is well known that William Morris was totally opposed to "restoration." Now, where does "conservation" (if one does nothing to e.g. the "Byzantine" decoration on the Staircase ceiling, it will some day become invisible) turn into "restoration"? And is it not a matter of public and scholarly interest to identify the Bedroom mural speculatively attributed to Lizzie Siddal? No doubt museum staff would be interested in these questions.
But the interest of Red House goes far beyond these complex professional problems, as it is pervaded by a peculiar atmosphere — indefinable but quite unlike the emotion which one may have when visiting other places associated with William Morris. The National Trust booklet about it speculates that "the early years that Morris spent at Red House with his young family [he married in 1859 and his two daughters were born there] were perhaps the happiest of his life" (1). Moreover, he not only lived there, but told Philip Webb (who was all too eager to transform them into bricks-and-mortar) what criteria he thought "A beautiful House" should meet. He never again lived in a "new" house, let alone designed one: by the age of 25, showing an extraordinary maturity, he had made his "statement," from which he never varied. In a way, Red House constitutes this unique "statement," to which all his later work (and much of the work of others) can be traced, thus making it a "historic building" if ever there was one — and this is more than enough to justify a visit for anybody remotely interested in William Morris or the Arts & Crafts Movement. As Rossetti put it, Red House was "more of a poem than a house" — a poem to the everlasting genius of William Morris, certainly.
Red House. Swindon: The National Trust, 2003. (Note: See the National Trust's own website for details of how to visit Red House.)
Vallance, Aymer. William Morris: His Art, His Writings and His Public Life. London: G. Bell, 1897. Internet Archive. Digitized by Google. Web. 14 December 2014.
Last modified 15 December 2014