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William Morris & Red House
A National Trust book
by Jan Marsh

William Morris and Red House courtesy the publishers Red House, one of the most important buildings of modern architectural times, was the only house built especially for designer William Morris by his friend, architect Philip Webb. This book tells of the collaboration between designer and architect on the house and details the architectural drawings and highlights of the house. Information on the interior designs of the walls, ceilings, and furniture are included.

Morris and his wife 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.

Included in the book are snapshots of the life of William Morris, his family, and friends during the five years of residence at the house. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife and model Lizzie Siddal, Edward Burne-Jones, and Ford Madox Brown were part of this group. The house became an inspiration for art, poetry, and friendship.

Red House reflects Morris’s feelings of the importance of both the home and its setting. It is 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’.

Morris bought the Bexleyheath site for the house in 1858 at the age of 25 upon his impending marriage to Jane Burden, daughter of an Oxford stable hand. The house was envisioned as an ‘earthly paradise’. They moved into the house in late summer 1860. Red House was built in the style of the 13th century, Morris’s favourite architectural period. It is two storeys in the shape of an L with turrets, gables, hips, and ridges.

The house, grounds, and garden were considered a whole with the setting of the house being as important as its design. Many of the apple and cherry trees were saved during the building. 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 an inspiration for the design of reasonably priced furnishings, and Morris intended to use it to showcase his products. He first designed wallpapers at Red House. Three of these were "Trellis", based on the rose trellises around the central courtyard, "Daisy", a personal motif he and Jane embroidered, and "Fruit", featuring Kent apples.

Although Morris only lived in the house for five years (giving it up due to strained finances and the inconvenience of commuting to London), its importance is found in its inspiration for the design firm, Morris & Co, the beginning of the Arts and Crafts movement. The Morris family returned to London in 1865 and put the house up for sale. Over the years many other people lived in the house. The book shares information on these tenants and owners after Morris left. In 2003 the National Trust was given the house by an anonymous donor.

Superb coloured and black and white photographs and illustrations add depth to the descriptions and details in the book. Further reading and places to visit related to Morris are suggested.

Jan Marsh is a biographer whose specialty is artists and writers. She writes extensively on the pre-Raphaelite circle. She is a trustee of the William Morris gallery, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and visiting professor at the University of Sussex graduate research centre.

Chapters in the book are: the first attempt, in the beginning, the house, the interior, the garden, life in the early years, later days at Red House, Red House after Morris, an uncertain future, private and public preservation, and epilogue.

William Morris and Red House
Published Dec, 2005
Imprint of Chrysalis Books Group plc
160 pages
ISBN 1 9054001 2
The book may be purchased from any National Trust shop or ordered online from Amazon in the US, Canada, and the UK.

Red House
Red House Lane
Bexleyheath DA6 8JF.
Open: Wed–Sun, 11am-5pm (after 1st Oct, 11am–4.15pm).
For more information visit National Trust
All visits before 1pm are by guided tour and must be pre-booked at 0 1494 755 588.

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.

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