‘More a poem than house’ – we visit Red House, William Morris’ Arts and Crafts gem, now a National Trust attraction in the suburbs…
by Nigel Andrew
The suburban sprawl of Bexleyheath in Southeast London is the last place you’d expect to find a gem of early Arts and Crafts architecture – but it’s there all right, behind its long brick wall, nestling amid its surrounding garden: the beautiful Red House. This was the only house the great designer William Morris ever built, collaborating with his friend, the architect Philip Webb. Both were young men, and both were fired by a love of medieval architecture and design, and an ambition to revive honest traditional craftsmanship. Red House was Webb’s first major commission, and Morris saw it as the chance to build, in collaboration with a kindred spirit, his dream house – a family home that would amply embody his taste and his ideals. It had to be a family home because Morris was now married – to the Pre-Raphaelite muse Jane Burden – but it would also be a social hub and creative focus for the lively artistic circles of which Morris and Webb were part.
©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler
Horseplay and honest red brick
The plot that Morris found was then in open country (hard to believe now), amid orchards and oast-houses above the Cray valley, and close to the medieval pilgrims’ route to Canterbury. Morris and Webb found inspiration for the design of the house while travelling down the Seine valley in the summer of 1858, sketching medieval buildings along the way. That influence shows clearly in the look of Red House, with its turrets, steep overhanging roofs, hipped dormers, pointed arches and conical-roofed well. As usual with Webb’s houses, the windows express the inner structure of the house and the functions of its individual rooms and spaces. They come therefore in all shapes and sizes, from tall narrow lancets and rectangular casements to round bull’s-eyes, and the effect is delightful, suggesting a building that has grown organically, rather than been built to a blueprint. There is no stucco, nor even roughcast – all is honest red brick, topped by tile roofs (not slate, as that would be an alien material in Kent). The redness of the house when new built must have been striking – Red House indeed – but now both bricks and tiles have mellowed beautifully, and the house sits in its setting as if it has always been there. Morris and Webb would be pleased.
The entrance doorway of Red House. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler
Sadly the family were only in residence here for five years before Morris began to find the journey to and from London too wearying. Plans to extend the house and establish a creative community with his great friend Edward Burne-Jones had collapsed (following the death of the Burne-Joneses’ son) and the Morrises’ troubled marriage was already under strain. The good times at Red House were over. And there had been some very good times, with the Morris-Rossetti-Burne-Jones circle enjoying countless convivial gatherings, with food and drink aplenty and much horseplay, while at the same time working on ambitious decorative schemes for the house, traces of which are still to be seen as you tour the interior.
Edward Burne-Jones (left) and William Morris (right) in 1874
The ‘Joyous Gard’
You enter the house by way of an understated arched porch, from which you emerge into the wonderful entrance hall that is the most dramatic and effective interior in the house. Light floods in from tall windows, doors and passages open to either side, and a plain wooden staircase of simple Gothic design rises from the far end of the hall.
The Entrance Hall at Red House -- ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie
To the right stands a tall settle-cum-dresser designed for the house by Webb and painted by Morris with a scene from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, showing ‘Sir Lancelot bringing Sir Tristram and the Belle Iseult to Joyous Gard’.
The green settle-cum-cupboard in the Entrance Hall. William Morris painted the scene from Malory. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond
The Joyous Gard was the Happy Home of Arthurian legend, and Morris’s intention with Red House was to create a Joyous Gard of his own – which, for a while, he did, with his Iseult (Jane) at his side. The dining room – scene of much hearty eating and drinking – opens from the entrance hall. Here the company ate at the large, sturdy dining table, designed by Webb to withstand the impatient Morris’ sometimes violent attacks on the wood. There would be no tablecloth, and they would eat from blue-and-white Staffordshire plates and drink from plain, greenish glasses also designed by Webb.
The Dining Room. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond
Detail of brick chimney breast designed by Webb. ©National Trust Images/John Millar
The exposed red-brick fireplace, its bricks laid in herringbone pattern, was later to be echoed in numerous Arts and Crafts and would-be Arts and Crafts interiors, right through to the 1930s. It is decorated with the blue-and-white Delft tiles that Morris (and many later designers) loved. There are no mantelpieces in Red House – nor, originally, was there any wallpaper, Morris not yet having entered into that field of design.
'Dragon's blood' lacquered dresser designed by Philip Webb for the house and dated c.1860. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie
The large dresser, another Webb-designed piece, is lacquered in a striking ‘dragon’s blood’ red and topped by a decidedly Gothic-looking three-gabled canopy.
Painted ceilings and stained glass
Stained glass windows by Burne-Jones. Photo: Nigel Andrew
Opening from the left of the entrance hall, though a glass screen engraved with the names of various visitors to Red House (and Morris’s daughter May), is a passage lined along one wall with windows that are among the earliest examples of Morris stained glass. Very pretty they are too, with figures probably by Burne-Jones, surrounded by charming birds and flowers designed in 15th-century style by Webb. The door at the end leads into a little garden porch that Morris, recalling those Canterbury pilgrims, called the Pilgrim’s Rest.
Top of the staircase. Photo: Nigel Andrew
As you climb the creaking staircase, look up and enjoy the painted ceiling that rises into the tower. The abstract patterns with which it is painted could be of almost any time and place, and are not the kind of thing you’d immediately associate with the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic.
The extraordinary painted ceiling. Photo: Nigel Andrew
One of Morris’s plans was to get Burne-Jones to paint the staircase walls with scenes from the Trojan Wars, but this ambitious scheme seems never to have got off the ground.
‘More a poem than a house’
The two largest rooms of the house are upstairs – the drawing room (placed, surprisingly, where it would be in a Georgian town house) and the studio.
The Settle in the Drawing Room. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie
The airy and spacious drawing room, with a wagon ceiling rising into the roof, is dominated by a huge settle, designed by Morris for his previous quarters in Red Lion Square and adapted by Webb. It once bore three doors painted with scenes from Dante – a wedding present from Rossetti. The canopy and the ladder at the side were added by Webb, creating a little minstrels’ gallery and, at the same time, giving access to the loft door – clever work.
Side view of the Settle in the Drawing Room. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie
In this room some of Burne-Jones’s murals survive, depicting wedding scenes from the medieval romance of Sir Degrevaunt. The royal bride and groom are recognisably William and Jane Morris, and the surprising presence of a wombat under a chair suggests that Rossetti – who owned a pet wombat, and even wrote a wombat poem – might have had a hand in the work.
Close detail of one of three wall paintings by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones in the Drawing Room. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond
The bay window in the Drawing Room. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie
The little bay window was a perfect place to sit to catch the afternoon sun. Its yellow ceiling decoration was designed by a later occupant of Red House, Jane Macdonald, and is perfectly in keeping.
The Broadwood square piano. Photo: Nigel Andrew
The Broadwood square piano once belonged to Morris’s Pre-Raphaelite friend Ford Madox Brown, who was one of the first visitors to Red House.
Bull's Eye window with original glass in the first floor passage. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie
Close detail of the Upper Hallway ceiling.
The plasterwork was pricked in an all-over pattern and curvilinear designs in red and blue painted by William Morris, Philip Webb and friends. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond The first-floor corridor, with Morris’s original ceiling decoration, is one of the pleasantest spaces in the house. The bull’s-eye windows retain much of their original glass and frame delightful views down to the garden. The studio is another large, airy space, its high ceiling decorated with an abstract pattern. The William Morris ‘Marigold’ wallpaper was put up by Ted and Doris Hollamby, who occupied and conserved the house from the 1950s into the new millennium, when their children sold it to the National Trust. Ted’s L-shaped architect’s desk still stands in the studio.
The Studio. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel
Ceiling decoration in the Studio - the pattern is pricked out in wet plaster emphasised by ochre paint. ©National Trust Images/John Millar
Red House as it stands now is, undeniably, a shadow of what it was in its glory days, when Rossetti described it as ‘a real wonder of the age’ and ‘more a poem than a house’. Much of the original decoration has been lost, and many important items of furniture now live elsewhere (notably at Kelmscott, Morris’s Oxfordshire home). It takes, as the guidebook acknowledges, ‘a considerable effort of the imagination’ to visualise the gem-like Pre-Raphaelite splendour of these rooms. However, it is definitely an effort worth making, and the journey to Bexleyheath is a journey worth taking. Red House is a wonderful survival. Plan your visit to Red House here.