William Morris' Red House in Bexleyheath

Posted on August 25, 2019 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments

bexleyheath

bexleyheath  bexleyheath

Architecture in Bexleyheath

 

Although I live in London, there are still many areas of the city that I am unfamiliar with or have never been to. I have long wanted to visit William Morris' former residence Red House in Bexleyheath, but somehow never got round to it. Since August is a quiet period, I decided to venture out to the SE part of Greater London on a sunny day.

To my surprise, the town centre of bexleyheath has some interesting historic buildings like Trinity Baptist Chapel (1868) and Christ Church (1872–7), and it feels more 'Kent' than London. After a 15-minute walk from Bexleyheath train station, I reached the National Trust-run heritage building and garden in a quiet residential area. With my National Art pass, I was able to get free entry and arrived in time for the guided tour.

 

red house

red house william morris  red house william morris

 

Commissioned in 1859 by William Morris, founder of the Arts & Crafts movement, Red House was designed by his friend and architect Philip Webb which completed in 1860. At the time, Upton was a hamlet on Bexley Heath, a largely picturesque area dotted with cottages, medieval ruins, and Tudor mansion (Hall Place). Intended as a post-wedding house for him and his new wife Jane, Morris financed the project with money inherited from his wealthy family, and dreamed of the house becoming a 'Palace of Art', a place where his artist friends could decorate the walls with stories of medieval legends. Influenced by Medievalism and Medieval-inspired Neo-Gothic styles, the building was constructed based on Morris' ethos of craftsmanship and artisan skills, which later became known as the Arts and Crafts movement.

 

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

 

Summer is definitely a good time to visit the house and garden, and since it was during the week and summer holiday period, there were very few visitors during my visit. Before entering the house, I spent some time walking around the north side of the 2-acre garden, and it made me feel at ease immediately.

Red House garden was first laid out over 150 years ago and successive owners have put their own stamp on the garden. The garden was important to Morris, hence he and Philip Webb put a lot of thought into the design of the garden. They wanted it to ‘clothe the house’ to soften the effect of the startling red brick. Little of the original garden design remains, so Red House's head gardener Robert Smith and his team embarked on an ambitious project to re-introduce some of the spirit of Morris’s ‘lost garden’.

 

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

 

Inside the house, it was Philip Webb who designed most of the furniture, while Morris, Jane, and his friend/painter Edward Burne-Jones designed all the furnishings including windows, wallpaper and tiles. Their collaborative works paid tribute to medieval craftsmanship, for example the glass in the gallery features flowers painted by Morris painted flowers, birds painted by Webb, overlaid with Burne Jones' work depicting Fortuna. On some windows (see the round one below) and tiles, inscriptions of Morris' motto: 'Si je puis" (if I can) can also be seen.

Another notable piece of furniture is a settle-cum-cupboard in the landing designed by Webb, with door panels painted by Morris which depict a scene from Malory entitled 'Sir Lancelot bringing Sir Tristram and the Belle Iseult to Joyous Gard'. The picture features Edward Burne-Jones offering cherries to his wife Georgie and Janey Morris and with Morris' servant, ‘Red Lion Mary’ in the background.

 

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

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Orginal architcetural plans and belongings of Morris are exhibited in one of the rooms on the ground floor.

 

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

Dining room

 

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

 

As visitors walk up to the first and second floor, they can admire Morris' patterned wallpaper which covers the ceiling suppored by wooden beams. In a small room on the first floor, there is a catalogue of Morris & Co's archive wallpapers. In 1862, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co began to design woodblock-printed wallpaper for the house, thus Morris & Co was born, a company still exists today producing wallpaper and textiles based on Morris' designs and ethos.

 

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

 

On the second floor, there is a drawing room which showcases an original built-in settle, and a fireplace painted with Morris’s motto: "Ars Longa, Vita Brevis" (Life is short, art is forever). On the sides of the settle are murals painted by Pre-Raphaelite artist/his friend, Edward Burne-Jones depicting the 15th century marriage feast of of Sir Degrevan.

Although the structure of the house was not altered, many of the original furnishings and wallpaper were either removed or painted over. Hence, the wallpaper in some of the rooms are simply reproductions of Morris' original designs. Since there is a sharp contrast between the murals and the surprisingly 'modern-looking' yellow polka dot patterned wallpaper on the ceiling, it made me wonder if the latter was added on during the restoration.

 

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

 

In 2013, the National Trust discovered a mural hidden behind a large built-in wardrobe on Morris's bedroom wall. The near-lifesize figures on the wall are believed to be the joint efforts of Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, Ford Madox Brown and Morris. The figures are from the Bible, which include Rachel, Noah holding a model ark, Adam and Eve, and Jacob with his ladder, and they were painted as if hanging on fabric.

 

red house william morris

The rediscovered mural by William Morris, Jane and other young pre-Raphaelites

 

Sadly, after five years living in their dream house, Morris, his wife and his two young daughters had to sell the house due to financial difficulties. Morris never returned to visit the Red House again, but described the five years as being "probably the happiest and not the least fruitful of his life."

Over the years, the house changed ownerships quite a few times and was threatened to be demolished until it was designated a Grade I listed building by English Heritage in 1950. Since the National Trust took over the house and garden in 2003, research and efforts were made to restore and conserve the house to its original condition.

 

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

 

Besides the house, I particularly enjoyed spending time in the garden surrounded by flowers and fruit trees and vegetables. After touring the house and garden, I had a coffee at the cafe's outdoor seating area and left feeling jolly and energised. Maybe good design and nature are two of the elements that we need in our lives to make us happy; though Morris did not get to spend much time here, thanks to him, we are now able to appreciate his vision and legacy as a revoluntionary designer and entrepreneur.

 


This post was posted in London, Architecture, British design, Nature, Art, Traditional arts & crafts, Gardens & parks, Architectural conservation, Designers & artists, Design, British art, British heritage and was tagged with London, architecture, nature, gardens, British design, heritage, William Morris, Architectural conservation, arts & crafts movements, Red House

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