Red House was the first marital home of William Morris, who is most famous for his fabric and wallpaper designs. In Victorian times he was better known as a writer and poet. Yet his talents were spread across many areas, including political activism. Alongside his contemporaries, he laid the foundations for the Arts and Crafts movement, which valued traditional crafts and decorative arts over mass-produced goods.
If Morris were to visit Red House today, he would likely not recognise its surroundings, amongst the suburban housing of southeast London. It was originally built on the site of an apple orchard, which would have been an idyllic retreat for Morris and his new wife, Jane Burden. Designed by Morris and Philip Webb, the house was completed in 1860, when Morris was just 26 years old. It was an expensive property for a young man, with its many rooms and labour-intensive features; therefore it was paid for by money from his father.
Morris wanted the Red House to be "very medieval in spirit" in keeping with his Pre-Raphaelite fantasies of the world prior to the industrial revolution. To break with Victorian tradition, the red bricks were laid in medieval patterns and the garden was more functional than ornamental. The steep, tiled roof and wide Gothic porches, influenced by Morris' travels in northern France, also created a distinct 'chateau' style.
Furniture and furnishings were mostly all made or designed by Morris and his friends. Webb designed the tables, metal candlesticks and table glass. Edward Burne-Jones contributed frescoes and windows, with his prior experience of designing windows for churches. Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, decorated furniture with paintings inspired by classical mythology. Their friends and wives posed as models for the characters in these legends. Red House became a popular destination for painting parties, when Morris's social circle would unite to decorate the house.
As Morris's career progressed, his wallpaper and fabric designs were to become a major commercial success. Unlike modern wallpaper, they were painstakingly printed by hand with wooden blocks for each layer of the design. Examples of these can be seen at the entrance closest to the garden well. There are sections of wallpaper elsewhere in the house, but these were later additions. When Morris and his family occupied the house, the walls were white or painted with murals. Morris had designed tapestries as wall decoration, which his wife and friends began to embroider. Their progression from a simple daisy design upstairs, to the detailed embroidery of Aphrodite downstairs, is remarkable – they learned these techniques from Morris, who was self-taught in this art.
The plants growing in the garden at Red House inspired many of Morris's designs. The wallpaper Trellis (1864) was based on the trellises of his wild rose garden. Morris planted indigenous flora because he believed it was better for bees and butterflies than fashionable exotics. He also believed that the garden, as well as being a thing of beauty, should exist for recreation and to provide fresh produce for the kitchen. Morris's two young daughters would have played in the garden and there are spaces for croquet, bowls and skittles. The Arts and Crafts movement adopted several of Morris's principles of garden design, such as his use of garden 'rooms' separated by hedges, trees or wattle fences.
Sadly, Morris and his family only lived at Red House for five years. Their north facing home was unhealthily cold and expensive to run. Their relationship was also de-stabilised because Morris's love for his wife was unrequited. Their early departure created a sense of unfulfilled wishes which lingers in the house. There is an unfinished painting on the cupboard in the hall and there are bare walls where there should have been frescoes or tapestries. A wall painting in the bedroom has been carefully restored to demonstrate how the frescoes would have looked in their full glory. In some instances the National Trust has peeled back layers of wallpaper or plaster to give an intriguing glimpse of what existed behind. The Trust has also chosen to preserve some additional features left by subsequent occupiers because they form part of the buildings history.
Red House is undoubtedly an important landmark in the revival of traditional crafts and decorative arts. Visitors can benefit from pre-booking guided tours in order to gain proper insight into its history. With the exception of the guidebook, there is little written interpretation at the property, therefore a tour is fully recommended. Visitors may also enjoy returning at different times of the year for special events and seasonal changes in the garden. Furthermore, the National Trust has only managed the house for ten years, so any future visits could reveal something new or unexpected.