Red House: Denise Silvester-Carr Visits the House That Proved an Inspiration to Many in the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Which Opens to the Public on July 16th. (Frontline)

Article excerpt

RED HOUSE, THE REMARKABLE RED-BRICK HOUSE built for William Morris in Bexleyheath, southeast London, was finally acquired by the National Trust in January. I say 'finally' as it was not the first time the Trust had tried to secure the house in which the Pre-Raphaelites experimented with paint and glass and where plans were formulated for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., the manufacturing and decorating firm at the centre of the Arts and Crafts movement. It is a house where the garden is equally significant and its plants were to inspire many of Morris's fabrics and wallpapers.

Almost seventy years ago the Trust earmarked Red House as a property it would like to add to its portfolio. Designed in 1859 by the young architect Philip Webb for Morris, it is a landmark in English architecture. When it came on the market in 1935 there were fears that it would be knocked down to make way for a building development. The threat of demolition prompted a number of concerned individuals to try to save the house in which the poet, craftsman and socialist had spent the first five years of his married life with Jane Burden, the muse and model of the Pre-Raphaelites. Herbert Baker, Stanley Baldwin, Rudyard Kipling, Edwin Lutyens, John Masefield, Giles Gilbert Scott, Bernard Shaw and the Prime Minister, J. Ramsay MacDonald, were among the twenty-five signatures to an appeal launched in The Times on May 1st. The owner had agreed to drop the asking price to 3,100 [pounds sterling] (less than Morris paid for the house!) but, despite the appeal, the sum was not realised in time and the house was sold within six weeks to a solicitor. A further chance to acquire it occurred in the early 1950s but on that occasion the architect Edward Hollamby and his wife, Doris who until recently lived in Red House, bought it.

Red House today stands secluded behind a pleasantly weathered red-brick wall surrounded by a forest of bungalows and semi-detached houses. The attraction of the site that Morris and Webb saw was an orchard of apple and cherry trees amid open fields and woodland, and in the plans that Webb drew up the orchard formed an intrinsic part of the design. The house, with its steeply pitched red-tiled roof, precipitous gables and tall tapering chimneys, is L-shaped with a well-head in the angle, its conical top resembling a Welsh wizard's hat. There are porthole windows with small medieval panes and a curious west-facing oriel window which seems out of place until you realise that inside on the window seat Jane Morris could catch the last of the evening light to do her embroidery. Unusually, the main reception rooms and Morris's study were on the first floor, though the dining room, large kitchen and generous living quarters for the servants were on the ground floor.

The Morrises spent the first five years of what was then a comparatively happy marriage here surrounded by a continuous stream of visitors, most frequently the Burne-Joneses who spent months in the house and once planned to live in a wing that Webb intended should enclose the courtyard. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal as well as the Ford Madox Browns and other friends were conveyed to the house from Abbey Wood station by the horsedrawn carriage with leather curtains that Webb had designed. …