The Return of Red House

Globe and Mail

One of the most important 19th-century English homes, and the experimental paint box of the pioneers of the arts and crafts movement, opened to the public this week after 140 years in private ownership. Described by painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti as "more a poem than a house," Red House was the realized utopian vision of Victorian writer, designer and political activist William Morris, and is a spectacular reflection of the ideals of a man who insisted that homes should contain nothing that isn't beautiful.

Supported by a brotherhood of heritage-minded organizations, Britain's National Trust splashed out $4.4-million in January to purchase the turreted Southeast London residence, now surrounded by nondescript suburban developments. The Trust is working hard to return the red-brick, red-tiled building and its magnificent walled garden to their original 1859 look, but it's a work in progress that is expected to take at least two years.

 

The organic restoration is something Morris would have appreciated. He commissioned Red House when he was 25 years old as a home for himself and his young bride, Jane Burden, the Pre-Raphaelite uber-muse who appears in dozens of dreamy Victorian paintings. While architect Philip Webb designed the layout, Morris gave his artistic friends free reign over the interiors. Experimenting with a romantic ideal of medievalism, Morris, Webb, Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones conceived a radically new country house that was both cozy and highly decorative.

Creating zigzag patterned doors, curlicue stained-glass windows and rustic built-in furniture with heroic painted panels, the young designers developed skills they later used to found Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., one of the most influential design firms of the late 19th century, whose wallpaper patterns are still popular today. And even though Morris lived in his dream home for just five years––business pressures forced him to sell it quickly––it was the only house he ever built for himself and he always regarded it as his favourite residence.

Designed in an L-shape to fit in with the orchards that surrounded the site, the house incorporates steep, multi-level overhanging roofs and a wide variety of round, arched and hooded windows. At a time when stucco was de rigueur, the use of bricks and roof tiles was unconventional, and the bold attempt to fully integrate the house with its garden raised eyebrows in polite society.

The garden's striking well, a solid brick-and-beam construction that echoes the house with its own tiled roof, looks like a fanciful Victorian folly, but is believed to have worked during Morris's time. Visitors can sit and ponder its unusual construction from a porch called the Pilgrim's Rest, a small corner feature of the house lined to waist level on one side with what are believed to be very early Morris-designed tiles.

Echoing these simple tiles, some of the windows of Red House contain crude yellow and brown stained-glass panels, some of Morris's first attempts at replicating the patterns he saw in nature. Morris reflected greatly on natural forms during his time at the house, and his second-floor studio, which has windows on three sides, overlooked the teeming garden and its apple, pear and quince trees.

While most Red House furniture was later removed to museums, there are several remaining pieces that were too large to be easily displaced. These include an entrance hall settle designed by Webb and decorated by Morris, whose unfinished heraldic painting covers the central doors. An upstairs room contains an even larger example. Topped with a minstrel's gallery reached by a ladder leading to the loft, its original upper doors were painted by Rossetti and now reside in London's Tate Britain.

Morris, who later wrote the seminal utopian novel News From Nowhere, was convinced that useful, creative work would be the salvation of humanity, and Red House stands as a testament to his combined political and design philosophies.

Even after his death in 1896, when the arts and crafts movement eventually gave way to art nouveau and art-deco styles, successive Red House owners retained much of the fabric of Morris's original home. When architect Ted Hollamby acquired the house in 1952, he took steps to preserve and periodically open it to visitors, work that his family and the Friends of Red House continued after his death in 1999 and which the National Trust has now safeguarded. Morris, who founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877, would no doubt have approved of the Trust's acquisition.

 

The unfolding Red House restoration––which includes walking elderly former residents through the home to trigger memories of near-forgotten features––has already paid dividends. An original wall painting hidden behind a cupboard for decades and believed to be by Rossetti's wife Lizzie Siddall was recently uncovered, and the outline of a geometric sub-divided garden––a precursor of the fashion Vita Sackville-West pioneered decades later––as also been unearthed.

If you go:

Red House is on Red House Lane, Bexleyheath, Southeast London.It's a 10-minute walk from Bexleyheath railway station, which is a 25-minute train journey from Victoria or Charing Cross Underground stations. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, Red House is accessible only by pre-booked tour, which costs about $11 a person. Bookings can be made at 44 (1494) 755 588. For more information, visit http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

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