ARE you a fan of William Morris? The Pre-Raphaelites? The Arts and Crafts movement? If you are, this is a place for you: Red House in the London suburb of Bexleyheath.
Red House is the only house commissioned, created by and lived in by the great designer, writer and activist. You could argue that it was a labour of love for Morris: not only would his house embody the ideals and aesthetics he held dear, but he intended it to be a home for himself and his new wife, Janey, and the family they hoped to have.
Red House is significant for several reasons. Firstly, although Morris had a clear idea of what he wanted from his home, he commissioned Philip Webb to turn his ideas into solid bricks and mortar. Webb was relatively unknown at the time, and Red House was his first solo project, but he went on to become probably the leading Arts and Crafts architect.
The completed building was decorated and furnished by William and Janey’s Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts friends, and quite a lot of their work remains in the house today. That includes a mural described as “of international importance” because it is believed to be the combined work of Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal and Ford Madox Brown. Amazingly, it was only (re-)discovered about five years ago, behind a wardrobe and hidden under layers of wallpaper! (As reported by the UK’s Guardian newspaper.)
Red House is also the place where Morris and Janey became parents – their daughters, Jenny and May, were born there. And it’s also the place where Morris set up his influential decorative arts company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co (which later became Morris and Co). It’s also (less salubriously), where the family were living when Janey started a relationship with Rossetti.
Red House had been on my list of places around London to see for years and years, and last Summer I finally got to do just that. I wasn’t disappointed; the house was just as captivating as I’d hoped it would be.
In fact, it was even better than I’d hoped, thanks to the lovely ever-so-English garden, and the obvious enthusiasm of the guides. Most (possibly all) of them were volunteers from the Friends of Red House, which was set up in 1998, when the then-owners were struggling to keep the house open to the public. In 2003, the house was taken over by the National Trust, but the Friends are still very much involved in running it.
I haven’t said much about Red House because the purpose of this post is, really, to recommend it to any Morris and Arts and Crafts fans out there. And, to be honest, I doubt I could give a better account of Red House and the people who contributed to it than this fab essay from a US-based open learning site:
I found the National Trust website (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/red-house) really user-unfriendly, and worth bothering with only to find out opening times, prices and advice on how to get there. The website of the Friends of Red House is miles more informative, and you can find it here: (http://www.friends-red-house.co.uk/)