hen William Morris and Philip Webb traveled through France together in 1858, the topic of building a new house for Morris was broached. A year later, Webb drafted the architectural plans and building began on the soon to be called Red house completed in 1860, as a home for the newlyweds William Morris and Pre-Raphaelite model Jane Burden. The brick home in the countryside of Bexleyheath, Kent soon became a social gathering place for young dreamers of Pre-Raphaelite inspiration, the genesis of the well known decorative arts company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., and moreover the symbolic beginning of the socially grounded Arts and Crafts movement. Webb's biographer Lethaby defines the movement succinctly in a sentence that could equally well be said of Red House: "The message will be of nature and man, of order and beauty, but all will be sweetness, simplicity, freedom, confidence and light" (quoted Dunlop, p.).
The House's design is, as a whole, marked by simplicity and a barn-like structure. The basic architectural layout of Red House is an L shape; two stories high, with four chimneys and numerous triangular gables. Few windows are the same size, as round, rectangular, and square windows are cleverly integrated into the brick, often with a pointed arch framing the top. Webb followed Ruskin's advice with the details: "do not be afraid of incongruities . . . do what is convenient" (Hollamby, p.). A prominent architectural feature is the corbelled oriel window on the west side that houses two rectangular windows cross-hatched in iron forming small diamonds that mimic the larger diamond shape formed by the roof and inverted buttress below. Like its windows, Red House is thoroughly individualized, as every object and detail inside, including furniture, drapery, murals, textiles, paintings and tiles are the product of someone's artistic labor. Even the signature of Webb as the architect is preserved internally because the walls and structure of the building are apparent in the space of each room evinced by the occasional exposed brick arch over a door frame and ceiling beams overhead, such as in the first floor drawing room. Beyond this artistic congruency, the surrounding garden and orchard were conceived as one entity with the house, lending continuity to the natural surroundings and a unity of landscape; one might even be able to guess from this fact that Morris prided himself on his knowledge of gardening (Hollamby, p.).
The style of Red House is based on a medieval theme and wrought with subtle romantic details. The most romantic of these being location; the great Chaucerian route of the Canterbury pilgrims famously runs straight through Bexleyheath (Hollamby, p.). The front door is a large, wide heavy set medieval door with brawny iron strap hinges that is receded from the strongly marked pointed brick archway that serves as the main entrance. A walk from the driveway, into the arch, through the door and welcome foyer leads straight to an austere oak stair case inside, whose banister is decorated with slender castle like mini-turrets. Further up the stairs (that evoke the sense of a church pulpit) a glance upward reveals a painted turret ceiling. This line of entry seals the medieval theme of Red House both internally and externally (Hollamby, p.).
It is difficult to speak only of the exterior of the building, because it was during the collective decoration of the inside that Morris and friends decided to turn their enterprise into a business and thus Morris, Marshall, Fulkner & Co. began on April 11, 1861. The additional members were Rossetti, Philip Webb, Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown, women being suspiciously absent from the list. The group members marketed the skills they had gained while working on Red House and listed their services in the form of a pamphlet offering:
I. Mural Decoration, either in Pictures or in Pattern Work, or merely in the arrangement of colors, as applied to dwelling houses, churches, or public buildings.
II. Carving generally as applied to architecture.
III. Stained Glass, especially with reference to Mural Decoration.
IV. Metal Work in all its branches, including Jewellery.
V. Furniture, either for its beauty on its own design, on the application of materials hitherto overlooked, or on its conjunction with Figure and Pattern Painting. Under this head is included Embroidery of all kinds, stamped leather, and ornamental work in such other materials, besides every article necessary for domestic use. [Waters, p. 48]
With all these varied arts and crafts it is easy to imagine the level of sophistication of each room in Red House with wallpaper, murals and carvings each individually finessed. It is no wonder that Morris often called it his "palace of art" following the poem by Tennyson. Certainly, this mature and grown up space did not take the fun out of the crafting inside as Georgiana Burne-Jones describes a few typical interactions between members of these later Pre-Raphaelites in her Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones: "Charles Faulkner came down a couple of days after we did, and helped to paint patterns on walls and ceilings, and played bowls in the alley, and in intervals between work joined in triangular bear fights in the drawing room. Once, in the middle of a scrimmage that had surged up the steps in the 'Minstrel's Gallery', he suddenly leapt clear over the parapet into the middle of the floor with an astounding noise; another time he stored wind fallen apples in the gallery and defended himself against all comers until a too well delivered apple gave Morris a black eye" (Waters, p. 47).
Arguably, the most important observation to be made of Red House and its exterior is that it is an embodiment of socialist goals; insofar as the design of an elite home can be. Webb and Morris chose traditional materials and clean lines to express a down to earth design that championed functionality and could ultimately be accessible to everyone both metaphorically and literally. It was built of brick and this is significant because, as Beth Dunlop points out, "someone of William Morris' social standing would more typically have lived in a stucco house" (p.). Designed as a workspace and home, the notion of communal gathering space was central from the beginning, and plans were even drawn up for an addition to be added for Edward Burn-Jones and his wife to move there. Those spoiled by the experience of Modern architecture ought to reflect on the truly revolutionary idea that design need not be confined to a certain audience. As Edward Hollamby notes, Red House "relies on such virtues as modesty, directness of expression and humanity to convey its aesthetic meaning" (p.). Indeed, its utopian spirit is subtle and hidden away in the vernacular landscape, but the mark Red House left on architecture and architecture's social responsibility is the legacy of the Arts and Crafts movement championed by William Morris and evident to this day in the natural beauty and simplicity of Red House.
1. Given that there were servant's bedrooms on the ground floor of Red House, and that members of Morris & Co. often used the term "common people" to refer to those who they most wanted to influence, should historians rethink the emphatic claim that socialism is embodied in the building, and alternatively say it was meant to have been embodied in the building?
2. Often, the ceiling and walls were painted or papered with different patterns of various colors. The integration point of these two patterns at the edge where ceiling meets wall is not always successful. Was the use of border paper rejected for a certain reason or was it simply overlooked by Morris and his group?
3. According to Hollamby, Morris wanted the first floor drawing room to be "the most beautiful room in the world." The room contains the oriel window, a wall painting by Burne-Jones and numerous other details. Assuming the photograph is accurate, is the upholstery on the chairs and the choice of rugs successful in creating an integrated design?
Dunlop, Beth. "Introduction." Art & Crafts Houses. London: Phaidon Press, 1999.
Hollamby, Edward. Art & Crafts Houses. Introduction by Beth Dunlop. London: Phaidon Press, 1999.
Waters, Bill, and Martin Harrison. Burne-Jones. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1973.
Last modified 23 November 2004