Monday, 30 October 2017

The Red House

Red House Lane,

Thursday October 26

Maybe it was being in Redbridge last week which reminded us that we, or at least Jo, had not yet visited the Red House, a house built and designed by Philip Webb and William Morris and lived in by the latter for a mere five years. The actual building – a substantial red brick and tile hung detached house – was completed in a year for the sum of £4000 equivalent to about £474.000 today.

This was the shell and grounds only, as the designer and architect pair were intent on designing and executing the interiors themselves with the help of some friends. That their friends happened to be such famous artists as Edward Burne Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti was handy. The house was to be one of ‘work and joy’.

Our photos are a mixture of ‘some prepared earlier’ from a previous visit to the house in rather better weather and the rest today. Morning visits are by guided tour only, though you are then free to wander after 1.30PM. Without flash and given the gloom of the day the interiors are quite hard to capture.

The house is now in very suburban and largely residential Bexleyheath and whereas the view from the house windows today is largely of bungalows and  mid-20th century developments, in Morris’s day it would have been orchards and fields.  At the time of his moving here the The Big Stink was exercising middle class Londoners and Morris wanted a home as opposed to living above the shop in Red Lion Square.

Webb was starting out on his career of architect to the affluent middle classes and the house looks very large from the outside though on the inside actually has quite few rooms, most of them now barely furnished. Also while many of the rooms are decorated with Morris wallpapers  this would not have been the case  at the time when most rooms would have had either wall hangings – tapestries created by the equally gifted womenfolk – or wall paintings , or ‘art’ as the guide named  it. Because the house was requisitioned during the war (they handed out the ration books) it was generously overpainted with brown coats so it has taken many years and painstaking work to uncover what few paintings remain.

It seems that Morris might have had a great scheme, a bit like ‘Grand Designs’, to portray the Trojan wars but restorers are still unsure ( or I wasn’t paying attention) what was where, whether it was ever finished, and what has been subsequently lost or remains to be discovered. Visible today are borders here and there, and ornamentation round the windows. Many (or all?) of the classical/medieval/mythical people depicted were based on real life people in the Morris circle, including Morris himself and his long time student friend and now collaborator Edward Burne Jones, and their respective wives. While Morris was ace with a pattern he had no great talent as a painter, and it is likely that one of the weekend guests brought in to help with the decoration was the (in)famous Dante Gabriel Rossetti; consequently some of the damsels he painted are clearly his earlier muse Lizzie Siddall. Later of course Rossetti would go off with Jane Morris …

You enter through the graceful Gothic arched porch into the generous hall (sorry, descriptions of houses always tends to descend into ‘estate agent’ speak) where we were told the grand fireplace was one of many designed by Webb, but each slightly different. The brickwork is lovely but sadly the house is really cold and the chimneys did not ‘draw’ that well. The other impressive piece is the green settle with its two Malory inspired cupboard doors.

The room immediately to the right is the dining room, again with fireplace and a heavy oak trestle of the kind would have been in use (another was abutted and led out onto the hall) to accommodate the weekend workers/ visitors. There is another red settle though looking more like a dresser/ sideboard. Morris liked his victuals and he had obviously inherited enough and earned enough to feed everyone.

The stairs up to the first floor are oak, most beautifully carved and finished and our guide thought purposely squeaky to avoid clandestine comings and goings. Or just squeaky.

Once upstairs you are allowed time to admire the painted ceiling, the huge height of which is of course seen in the external complex roof structure. In the second half of the landing the ceiling has been copied/restored. The windows offer views of the lovely gardens which surround the house. 

There are three main rooms upstairs open to the public.  We presume the bathrooms and kitchens were later additions/alterations by the post-war owners, themselves architects for the LCC and who left the house to the National Trust. 

The master bedroom is small and would have been even smaller when it contained the built-in wardrobe part of Webb’s design. Jane Morris covered the walls with hangings based on the daisy pattern wallpaper but apparently this was one of the coldest rooms and even thick serge cloth may not have helped much. The next door room is the studio used originally by Morris and then by later owners. There is the cut wooden block for the pattern ‘marigold’ and the corresponding print on the walls to give you a feeling for the ideas, creativity and processes that went into Morris’ company – he may not have been a great fan of wall paper himself but they remain, along with the matching fabrics, one of the most enduring products of the company… Their presence in the house is largely down to later owner the LCC architect and Morris fan Edward Hollandby .
As you would expect from an artist’s studio the light is wonderful. 

The most spectacular room on this floor is the drawing room, complete with a large (over large?) settle which Webb had built for Red Lion Square and transferred here, adding a musicians’ gallery to the top – though white it does loom a bit. The room has three Burne Jones paintings which were to be part of a larger series – the wedding procession and wedding feast include familiar figures again and it is likely the visitors to the house would have been encouraged to dress up in medieval styles likewise. Since the National Trust took over the house in 2003 they have been able to reveal more and more of the wall paintings and restore where possible.

Back downstairs you exit via another passage with some of the best, and best preserved, pieces of stained glass in the building; charming birds and more of the Morris coat of arms with two beautiful Burne Jones figures which may or may not have started their life in the front door.

The tour finishes in the garden where you are able again to appreciate the exterior lines.

For any fan of William Morris this visit is a must; otherwise you would need to have a special interest in architecture and interior design. In many ways the house still feels like a project rather than a home, or a showcase for some very specific ideas on craft and design.

The garden today could only be described as autumnal with a range of wet seedheads, but when I say it still detained us for nearly half an hour you can see how richly planted it is and how much there is to look at even at the end of the season. It is also very tranquil so to walk back to the station through modern Bexleyheath comes as quite a jolt.  

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