William Morris, famous for his involvement in the Arts and Crafts movement, first evolved his design philosophy when he commissioned architect Philip Webb to design Red House. He was 25 and newly married, and Webb was 27. The house was finished in 1860. It is two storeys high and in the shape of an L with turrets, gables, hips, and ridges.
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The house was decorated by Morris and his friends Webb, Rossetti, and Burne-Jones. Morris and his wife, Jane, painted the geometric abstract ceilings and worked together on embroidered hangings for the house interior.
Burne-Jones and Rossetti painted some of the furniture and murals. A wall painting thought to be by Lizzie Siddal was rediscovered behind a built-in wardrobe in the main bedroom of the house.
From this initial collaboration grew the manufacturing and decorating firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. Morris intended to use the house to showcase his products. Morris first designed wallpapers at Red House.
Morris only lived in the house for five years, but it became famous for its reflection of the new movement in design, not just in the architecture but also in the furnishing, furniture and décor. The house and its fittings are a statement of his belief, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful". Rosetti described Red House as 'more a poem than a house’. The settles, which are still in the house, were designed by Webb, as was much of the furniture.
The garden was designed using medieval principles. Four square gardens with a wattle fence and roses copied Tudor garden ideas. The grounds were further enhanced by climbing plants such as roses and honeysuckle. Morris added a garden of long grass walks with midsummer lilies and autumn sunflowers. He did not like wild gardens. Unfortunately, most of the garden succumbed to time and development in the area.
Red House was bought for the National Trust by an anonymous donor in 2002.
Red House Lane
Bexleyheath, DA6 8JF
Tel. 020 8304 9878 (tour bookings)
Open: March-3rd week Dec, Wed-Sun, 11am-4.45pm, by guided tour only before 1pm, must be pre-booked (between 9.30am-1.30pm Tue-Sat); check National Trust website for specific details and changes
National Trust property; stables; exhibition room; small tea-room; no parking (use Danson Park car park 1 mile away)
Read our review of the book William Morris and Red House
Note: To see many of the original furnishings of the house visit Kelmscott Manor, the V & A museum in London, Tate Britain, and the William Morris gallery at Walthamstow.
Photos © by Barbara Ballard