Saturday 21 June 2014

Red House

If you'd asked me last week to describe William Morris, I'd probably have come up with 'he made flowery wallpaper'. 

But that was before I went to Red House in Bexleyheath, a house that Morris designed and lived in:
Red House National Trust

William Morris was PROFOUNDLY influential in his poetry, his socialism, his preservation of historical buildings, and his textile design. He wasn't just a male Victorian version of Laura Ashley as I may lazily have assumed. (My ability to make lazy assumptions may also have led me to buy train tickets to Berkhamsted rather than Bexleyheath this morning, Berkhamsted being in an entirely different part of the country, which may have put a strain on proceedings with the scone sidekick.)

There were two National Trust firsts for me today. Firstly, we pre-booked a house tour. I never do this, because I like to see what the visitor experience is like if I just turn up. However, you can't access Red House until 1pm if you don't book, so we did.

I really recommend the tour. We learned that William Morris went to study at Oxford, where he met Edward Burne-Jones, the artist. They developed a love of the medieval that led Morris to initially pursue a career in Gothic architecture. While he was working for an architect he met Philip Webb, who went on to build 60 or 70 houses, but Red House was Webb's first commission.

Together Morris and Webb created a building that is really quite stunning. On the outside it combines red brick with Gothic features, while inside it is unfurnished but contains a number of artefacts that give you some idea of the Morris 'look'.

This window for example contains a Burne-Jones stained glass window depicting the figure of Fate, next to flowers designed by Morris and birds created by Webb:

Red House Burne-Jones window

And the whole house was filled with paintings and objects like these, all designed by Morris and his friends, who included the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, and of course Burne-Jones and Webb. A lot of the murals depict the Bible or Arthurian legend but featuring Morris and his wife Janey, as with the king and queen below:

As Morris and his pals created items for Red House, they also formed a company - Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. - which made similar fittings and fixtures and furnishings for a wider audience. In the process they created the Arts & Crafts movement and an entire aesthetic that was taken up in the UK and elsewhere.

Morris only lived in Red House for five years before having to sell up and move back to London where he had his business. Red House was owned by sympathetic architects and artists over the years, until the Trust acquired it in 2003.

The second of my National Trust firsts today involved me reading TripAdvisor reviews of Red House. I don't know why I did it and I'm still in shock: three people marked it as Terrible. 58 people had given it Excellent or Very Good but three human beings actually went to Red House and looked round and came away and went on their computers that night and wrote that it was 'Terrible'. The people that volunteer and work at National Trust properties must honestly sometimes wonder why they bother.

Anyway, I loved Red House and I am going to say so on TripAdvisor.

The Red House scone
Let's move on to the scones. Morris and his family ate from blue and white plates when they lived at Red House, so it was a nice touch when my scone turned up on one. It was a tasty scone with a well-fired bottom, and it provided further evidence that a scone eaten outside in the sunshine tastes at least half a point better than if the same scone were eaten indoors (see also Mompesson House and Brownsea Island).

Red House National Trust Scones

I'll finish with this photo of William Morris. It was taken in 1887, long after he had left Red House, but it shocks me every time I look at it. I swear you could walk down Shoreditch High Street THIS MINUTE and within 30 seconds find approximately 75 young men desperately trying to grow the facial hair to look like this: 

Red House: 4.5 out of 5
Scone: 4 out of 5
Surprising on-trendness of beard: 5 out of 5

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