Monday 19 August 2013

Uncovering a Mural Surprise at the Red House

By now, most of you will be aware that a mural has been unveiled at the lovely Red House in Bexleyheath.  You might remember I mentioned the mural in my review of the Wombat Friday activities there a couple of weeks ago (read about wombat excitement here!)  Now the full story can be told of the remarkable find behind a cupboard and a whole lot of paint...

Figures are (l-r) Adam and Eve, Noah, Rachel and Jacob
When they were found beneath paper and paint, there were only two figures, and they were believed to be work of just one artist.  Now a major conservation project has uncovered a row of figures by William Morris and his friends and guests.  Between 1860 and 1865, Morris played host to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown.  All through the house are hints that the friends collaborated to make the home an Art Palace.  This was in line with ideas that the friends would live together in an artists commune.  Their collaborations, which cover the walls, ceilings and furniture show their shared love of the medieval past, for example the recently uncovered patterned border on the mighty mural downstairs...

Check out the border on the 'Wombat Wedding Feast' mural
Morris left the Red House after the dream of this Medieval Eden had been wrecked by life; the death of Siddal and the Burne-Jones' baby, and Georgiana's near fatal illness.  William Morris found that working in London and travelling back out to his countryside home was exhausting and expensive and so moved the family into London, closer to work.  Of course, by 1865, Rossetti and Jane had begun their relationship and so the dream of cooperation had well and truly gone.

Conservator Bianca Madden from specialist conservators Tobit Curteis 

The house remained in private ownership until the National Trust acquired it in 2003.  Much of the original decoration seems to have been hidden by panelling, wallpaper and paint, just waiting to be discovered. The beautiful new mural was hidden behind a fitted wardrobe under a layer of wallpaper.  When first uncovered only two of the figures were faintly visible.  After substantial conservation, the full mural, six feet by eight feet in size, has been uncovered.  The room was Morris and Jane's bedroom and the figures are Adam and Eve (with a snake), Noah (holding a tiny ark) and Rachel and Jacob (with a ladder).  An added dimension (almost literally) is that the design is meant to be a tapestry, painted to resemble actual folds of fabric.

The lovely Rachel
Although it is not certain which artist painted which figure, I'll hand you over to Jan Marsh for an expert opinion (My motto is In Jan We Trust):
 The concept of the overall design was almost certainly by Morris. Our initial thoughts are that the figure of Jacob was by Morris, Rachel possibly by Elizabeth Siddal, Noah by Madox Brown. But who painted Adam and Eve? Maybe Rossetti or Burne-Jones?” 

There are lines of faded text under the bottom of the painting and with the help of folk on Twitter the text has been identified as Genesis 30:6, and I quote 'And Rachel said, God hath judged me, and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son: therefore called she called his name Dan (which means Judging)'  

The figure of Eve
The work, which is astonishing, was undertaken by specialist Tobit Curteis who have slowly uncovered this beautiful discovery.  For me, the mural has a tinge of bittersweetness as it was obviously painted in the spirit of optimism and camaraderie.  The text under the painting speaks of a belief that you will get rewarded for your efforts.  I hope, after all, the group of friends felt that had their rewards, although in some cases it's hard to believe.

The Red House is open to the public and the National Trust page is here and it is very much worth a visit as they continue to reveal aspects of this home of an brilliant man and his extraordinary friends.


  1. What a find, absolutely amazing. Wish I lived a little closer so I could pop in for a gander. That was a nice article in the Guardian, managing not to sneer at the Pre-Raphaelites for change.

  2. There has been universally lovely coverage, which does make a nice change, as you say. The Guardian seemed to have a photo of the wrong mural, but you can't expect everything.

  3. Sorry for the attack of FATFINGER. That should have read ...for a change.

  4. Dear Kirsty
    How exciting! I wonder who decided to panel it over? It would be lovely to be able to positively identify the artists for each of the figures but then a little mystery is a good thing!
    Thank you for posting about this find.
    Best wishes

  5. Very exciting find,strengthans my desire to go to the Red House, Had a wonderful long weekend at Kelmscott Village in June.Lovely river walk and visit to the house ,Magic!


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx