Changing London

Arts and Crafts in Bexleyheath: Visiting William Morris’s Red House

For design students, William Morris is often regarded as the most influential person of all time. Born in Walthamstow in 1834, he is considered by many the father of the Arts and Crafts, a movement which was also influenced by the writer John Ruskin and architect Augustus Pugin.

When Morris was alive he was better known as a poet, but is today better remembered for the wonderful colourful flowery wallpapers and fabrics he created. His designs have been carefully retained in archives and the re-printed editions are a popular feature in many homes around the world.

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” Morris said. He was a big advocate of “art for all” – taking the view no matter how much money people had they should be able to live in pleasant surroundings.

After studying Classics at Exeter College, Oxford, Morris joined an architects practice in the city run by G.E. Street. But he soon realised that a career in architecture wasn’t for him and so switched to painting. Morris set up a studio in Red Lion Square in London with his old university friend Edward Burne-Jones, who had also switched to painting in the Pre-Raphaelite style. The pair secured work decorating a debating chamber at the new Oxford Union with murals depicting the Arthurian legend, the Morte d’Arthur.

But he had more success with the company founded in April 1861: Morris, Marshal, Faulkner & Co, ‘Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the metals’. He assumed total control of the company in 1875 and renamed it Morris & Co. Thanks to his energy and drive, it grew rapidly over the next century and half.

Morris & Co went in to voluntary liquidation in 1940, but the remaining stock and design archives were purchased by Arthur Sanderson & Sons and have remained with the family business ever since. It is thanks to this that Morris’s vivid designs can still be enjoyed to this day by so many.

But had it not been for the problem of finding furnishings for his own home, Morris’s interior design firm may never have been born. The company’s origins lie in the home, designed by his architect friend Philip Webb, in what was then rural Kent and is now in the care of the National Trust.

Red House, Bexleyheath

Building a home

When William Morris’s four-bedroom detached Red House in Bexleyheath was completed in 1860 at a cost of £4,000, the surrounding area was little developed. Bar farm workers’ cottages, it was largely just orchards and market gardens that the new home’s owner and his wife Jane (known as Janey) would have seen when they looked out the window. The setting was considered by one of Morris’s friends to be “the most beautifullest place on earth.”

Red House was described by the Pre-Raphalite painter and poet Dante Gabriel as “a real wonder of the age…. which baffles all description.” Another contemporary described it as “more of a poem than a house… but an admirable place to live in too.”

While it may have been rural the fact the plot was just a stone’s throw from the main road from London to Canterbury – where Chaucer’s pilgrims had travelled in years gone by – mattered to Morris. He was obsessed by the middle ages and prior to starting construction had travelled with Webb, his friend and architect, to France where they sketched buildings from the period built along the Seine valley.

Entering Red House today its medieval influence is immediately on show. The entrance hall has the feel of a great hall, the most important room of a medieval household, and it was here that Morris and his guests would sometimes have eaten, evoking the grand banquets of the past. For other occasions the ground floor dining room was used, where the family and guests ate off Staffordshire blue-and-white earthware plates.

The large drawing room on the first floor features the massive settle, designed by Morris, but with a canopy and ladder added by Webb to create a miniature minstrel’s gallery (it was one of three fantastic original large pieces that was left when the family moved out, another being the ‘dragon’s blood’ red dresser). Like many of the other rooms in the house, there is an exposed red-brick fireplace, above which is an apt Latin slogan translating as: “Life is short, but art endures.” In this room, there is also a medieval-themed mural which Morris commissioned Burne-Jones to paint, sadly one of a number that are fading.

First floor drawing room, with massive settle

When Morris lived in the house, their bedroom was apparently one of the best decorated and furnished rooms. “These [embroidered hangings] we worked in a simple rough way,” wrote Janey. “The work went quickly and when finished we covered the walls of the bedroom at the Red House to our great joy.” But today it seems fairly plain and pokey compared to other rooms in the house (the four-poster bed the couple had here would have made things even more tight).

What I think is the best room in the house is the first studio, which is flooded with light thanks to the external walls being wrapped by windows. On show in this space today are today some the early block print used when Morris’s textiles were made by hand. It was a time-consuming process, but he was convinced the quality was better than the items that any machine could produce.

While Morris is well-known for the wallpapers his company produced, at Red House the walls were plan (the wallpaper on display is modern reprints of his later 19th century patterns). But some original interiors do remain, including attractive stained-glass, featuring animals and religious scenes (some from Burne-Jones and Webb). Much of the movable furniture, designed by Webb, can now be found at Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire.

The house was – and still is – surrounded by about two acres of land. It was originally an orchard, but Webb tried to retain as many trees as possible when the property was built. “The surrounding garden divided into many squares, hedged by a sweetbriar or wild rose, each enclosure with with its own particular show of flowers; on this [west] side a green alley with a bowling green; on that, orchard walks and gnarled old fruit trees,” is how one 1863 visitor described the garden.

By 1864 Morris’s firm had outgrown its premises in Red Lion Square in London and he dreamed of moving its operations to Bexleyheath. It would have meant an end to the dreaded daily commute. Webb was commissioned to produce plans for extending Red House so Morris co-workers could live with him as a community of artists.

But Morris’s friend Burne-Jones lost his child to scarlet fever and pulled out of the scheme, so plans to relocate the firms to operations to Bexleyheath. It wasn’t the only reason: Morris and Janey were both unwell and their marriage was becoming strained. The family instead left Kent (he couldn’t find a buyer, so it was initially let out) and they took a rented home in Queen Square in Bloomsbury. As for Red House, he would “never set eyes on it again, confessing that the sight of it would be more than he could be bear,” noted Morris’s biographer.

Moving on

Morris’s business went from strength to strength, but he is also achieved a great deal more before he died in 1896. He became an accomplished poet and he helped establish the modern fantasy genre of literature. In 1877 he helped found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to help save ancient buildings from being modernised and losing their character. From the 1880s Morris became a committed revolutionary socialist, founding the Socialist League in 1884.

Although his main home after Red House remained in London, from 1871 he also rented Kelmscott Manor (where much of Morris’s surviving furniture is today). It was a rural retreat which the couple enjoyed spending time at during the summer months.

Back at Red House, after Morris it was owned by a number of advocates of Arts and Crafts. Bradford textile manufacturer Charles Holme, who owned it between 1890 and 1903, founded a magazine called Studio, which supported the movement. The parents of Edward Maufe, architect of Guildford Cathedral, whose worked was in part based on Arts and Craft thinking owned it between 1903 and 1920. And then from 1927 to 1935 an editor of Studio lived here.

During the Second World War, the property was occupied by the National Assistance Board which stored ration books here. After a number of owners post-war, Red House was sold to the National Trust in 2003. Today, volunteer guides give book-able morning tours and during afternoon it is open for visitors to explore independently. While much of the original furnishings have gone and successive owners have painted walls or over patterned ceilings, it is great to be wander around the wonderful home that Morris and Webb so lovingly created.

Original exposed red-brick fireplace

Downstairs corridor  

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