Saturday, 2 July 2011

Marry me, Morris!

Good evening all, I have just returned from a frolic to The Red House, William Morris' home in Bexleyheath, just outside London.

Nestled quietly in a London suburb, it was only because I spotted the familiar blue disc on the wall that I knew we had arrived.  Through a gate and down a little path and here we were...

It's hard to describe exactly how extraordinary it is to come across such a little red gem of a house in among the endless stretch of bungalows and crazy-paved drives, but as if by magic we were stood in a little corner of Victorian madness and I have never smiled so widely.

Morris wanted a home in the style of the 13th century.  If he had said 'I want something that looks like a Gothic parsonage, and don't spare the round windows!' I wouldn't have been surprised.  And the stained glass!  And the plants! And a pointy-roofed well, to boot!  Heaven.

It's usually about this time I have to stop, as photography is by and large not allowed inside historic properties or museums due to our copyright laws, however the beautiful National Trust people at The Red House allow photography as long as you don't use a flash.  God bless them!  I love them so much I will henceforth refer to the organisation as The National Lust.  In we go then....

You find yourself in a comfortable, burrow-like, hang on, that's The Hobbit. The Red House has only been with the Trust since 2003 and a lot of work has gone into getting it back to the condition in which we find it today, stripped back to Morris' original concept.  The pieces of furniture they have are stunning, for example...

This russet-red dresser is an orginal piece of Philip Webb furniture, and apparently the colour is described as 'dragon's blood'.  Gosh, I want to describe things as being dragon's blood red now, it's so mad.  Tells you all you need to know right there.  Are you sure this isn't The Hobbit?  Have a gander at the lantern...

Well, yum, yum, yum.

A big thing is obviously Morris' designs for wallpaper, and these are everywhere, and I mean everywhere.  Don't forget to look up.

and another ceiling, I love this one.
The yellow dots remind me of 1960s ceramics.  You really have to look absolutely everywhere as you wander around as the beautiful patterns are everywhere.  Even where the walls are white, the shape of the architecture is decoration enough, look down from the top of the stairs...

The 'steepled' newel post and tiny 'portholes' in the solid stair-rail are so beautiful, and the wood is stained so darkly that the light just glitters off the glass light fittings and gilt on the wall and ceiling papers. 

Oh and the stained glass....

I went on a particularly bright day and the colours were so luminous that I spent ages just admiring the figures in the windows as you walk in.

Red Angel
Green Angel

Upstairs there is the most enormous settle, designed by Morris for Red Lion Square.  I think you could fit Mr Walker's first flat inside that piece of furniture.

The ladder and canopy were added by PhilipWebb after they moved it to The Red House to create a mini minstrels' gallery and helping you get into the loft (the doors high up behind the settle). The canopy is decorated with a simple heraldic motif.

Surrounding you at The Red House is evidence of work, design and inspiration.  You get a real sense of Morris' dream, his idea of a place of creation and beauty for his beautiful queen of a wife and little princess daughters, where he could make the world a nicer place.  It's hard to comprehend the sort of man who can apply himself to designing a whopping great big settle, a tapestry and wallpaper, it is just so much work.  The printing blocks are astonishing to see in a room decorated with the finished product.

A carved wallpaper block
I'll tell you something that is missing: the next part of the story.  This period of Morris' life is often overshadowed for me by what followed, the bitter-sweet Kelmscott times and general Rossetti takeover, but at The Red House, it is easy to feel the enthusiasm and optimism of the early years.  Just looking at the tapestry figure of Aphrodite, stitched by Jane's sister Bessie, you have to wonder at the time and effort that went to creating the beauty which is so easy to take for granted.

I now make my guilty confession:  When I see Morris print on things in the National Lust shops I don't feel inspired.  It's too familiar and shiny, too mass-produced to make me feel anything.  When I see it on the wall, when I see it hanging from heavy, luxurious curtains in an Arts and Craft home, I sink to the ground whimpering in delight.  There is something about seeing it as it was meant to be seen, as Morris intended you to consume his design, that just makes you strike your forehead and say 'Now I get it.  Yes, you are a genius. Yes, I will marry you.  Design me a castle of Arts and Craft gorgeousness immediately!'

OK, so the last bit may well be just me, but you get the idea.  Go, enjoy with my blessing.


  1. Amazing...I had no idea that Red House was in a suburb! I always pictured it in the midst of rolling hills...

  2. I admit I was moved to tears when I finally got to visit the Red House...felt like a pilgrimage. The spirit of Morris came across so strongly. Wonderful!


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