“A Palace of Art”:  William Morris’ Red House

Biddy Peppin, my British art history professor, turned on the slide projector one rainy London morning and changed my life forever.  There, on the screen, was the most beautiful, intricate, ornate wallpaper I had ever seen, designed by a man named William Morris. I could barely sit still with excitement, and spent the rest of my college semester in London eagerly digging up information about this gifted man.

During the subsequent years, I made pilgrimages to Kelmscott House in Hammersmith Kelmscott Manor in Lechlade, and of course, all the museums and buildings that housed his work.   But one important place remained elusive — Morris’ Red House.  All that changed in 2003, when Britain’s National Trust acquired the property and opened it to the public.

William Morris was one of the most influential and important designers of the past two centuries.  The leader of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris created designs that transcend time, style and fashion.

Mostly known today for his textile and wallpaper designs, Morris made his mark in seemingly all aspects of the art and literary worlds of his day.  Originally bound for the clergy, schooled at Oxford, and inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, Morris trained as an architect for a few months, then became a painter.  Throughout his lifetime, he designed wallpaper, carpets, tile, tapestries, furniture and stained glass, and, with a group of friends, founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co.  His devotion to books, illuminated manuscripts and typography spurred him to start Kelmscott Press.  He was a poet, political activist and rabid Socialist.  A devotee of medieval and vernacular buildings and an opponent of bad restoration work and Victorian suburban sprawl, he founded the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings.

In the late 1850’s, Morris purchased rural land in Bexleyheath, Kent, with the dream of building a house for his new wife, the Pre-Raphaelite muse Jane Burden. The land was picturesque, and most importantly to Morris, situated along the medieval pilgrimage road from London to Canterbury.

In 1859, he commissioned his good friend, architect Philip Webb, to design and build the house, and moved in with Jane in the summer of 1860.

Today, Red House (named for its exposed brick exterior walls when stucco was the current fashion), is tucked away inside a 20th-century suburb, about a 30-minute train ride from London. Still, despite its current surroundings, one gets a true sense of place.

The house’s simple red brick exterior with rubbed brick arch entranceways, bull’s eye glass windows and steep red tile roofs pays careful homage to medieval English vernacular houses – understated, sturdy and a bit rustic.  A charming, functional well with turreted roof is the yard’s focal point, and, in Morris’ day, was surrounded by medieval plantings – a “garden room” as he called it, blurring edges of living space between interior and exterior worlds.

Morris intended Red House to be a “palace of art,” meaning he had hoped it would be a gathering place and artistic center for the dreams and work of his fellow art and literary friends.  And, he hoped, they would help him design and decorate the house’s interior and his carry out his now-famous mission of having nothing in his house that wasn’t useful or beautiful.

The artistic crew obviously succeeded.

Morris’ friends, including Webb, Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones with their wives Lizzie Siddal and Georgiana Burne-Jones,  Peter Marshall, Algernon Swinburne and Charles Faulkner, among others, spent two years decorating the house. Its relatively plain interior with stained wooden moldings and built-ins became an empty palette for the group, who obviously went to town with the project.  Morris painted ceilings and designed wall hangings and carpets, which were woven and embroidered by Jane. Web designed the built-ins.  Rossetti and Morris designed and painted ornate medieval-looking furniture.  Burne-Jones painted walls and designed painted and stained glass throughout the home.

Red House was a hive of activity, with each artist learning the process as they created.  The house’s large brick fireplace’s inscription described their efforts: Ars Longa, Vita Brevis.  Probably a quote from Chaucer, it can be translated as, “the life so short, the craft so long to learn.”

It didn’t take the group long to learn their crafts, as they were so successful and popular with their Red House work, they decided to start their own commercial enterprise in 1861: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company. Morris dreamed of re-creating a medieval arts and crafts guild, to be based at Red House. Unfortunately, plans to expand the property were scrapped, and the group ended up moving back to London because of financial difficulties from paltry project pay, despite their critical success.

The Morrises and their two young daughters moved out of Red House in 1865, a mere 5 years after they moved in. Renovations were left unfinished.  Morris was so upset by the move that he never visited the house again. “Seeing Red House again would be more than I could bear,” he lamented.

Thankfully, Red House still stands today, the embodiment of everything Morris stood for.  I was nervous about seeing the house for the first time, worried that I would somehow be disappointed.  But my fears were allayed.  The house was exactly like Rossetti described, “a most noble work in every way, and more a poem than a house, but an admirable place to live in, too.”

Red House is open for small group tours March through mid-December. Check the National Trust’s website for details: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-redhouse.htm

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