This iconic and unique Arts and Crafts home in Bexleyheath in London’s east was at the centre of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
Commissioned by poet, designer and artist William Morris in 1859 – and built by his friend, architect Philip Webb (with whom Morris would co-found the The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877) – the L-shaped house was designed to be a home for Morris and his new wife Jane as well as a hub for the so-called “second wave” of Pre-Raphaelites.
Described by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as “more a poem than a house”, the two storey red brick property (hence the name ‘Red House’) is characterised by elements of romanticised Gothic medieval design – including a steep gable roof, tall chimney stacks, oriel windows and stained glass – but also contains a very practical layout.
The Morrises moved in during June, 1860, and, inspired by medieval art and literature, commenced elaborately decorating the property in bold colours. The couple hung the walls with embroideries and pictures and commissioned Webb to design furnishing while others who helped with the interior decoration included Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal and Edward Burne-Jones.
It was this communal response to the home’s design that is credited as leading to the founding of the decorative arts company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co – often referred to as ‘The Firm’ – in 1861.
A plan to extend the property in the mid-1860s to add workshops as well as allow Burne-Jones and his family to live there was aborted after the then pregnant Georgiana Burne-Jones contracted scarlet fever, losing the child as a result.
Meanwhile, Morris – whose two daughters Jenny and May were born in the property – was apparently discovering the home’s short-comings – including its orientation away from the sun and its distance from London. He subsequently decided to move his family back to London and in 1866 sold the property, never returning to it again.
The house remained in private hands until it was acquired by the National Trust in 2003. Morris, meanwhile, went on to lease Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire with Rossetti and is buried in the nearby churchyard of St George’s Church.
The now Grade I-listed house, which still contains original features and furnishings, is surrounded by a garden which was designed to “clothe” the property and which, as well as being informed by Arts and Crafts principles, features a beautiful conical-roofed well-house. When open, there’s a cafe and second-hand bookshop on site.
The house has an English Heritage Blue Plaque commemorating Morris and Webb.
For more, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/red-house.
PICTURE: Top – The property with well house in the foreground (Steve Parkinson/ licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); Right – A mural in the drawing room designed by Edward Burne-Jones depicting the marriage feast of Sir Degrevant (Ethan Doyle White at English Wikipedia (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)