56. Red House – 14/12/2014

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Apologies for the thermos flasks on the table, they were getting ready for the mummers’ play!

It’s that time of year again. My visits inevitably dwindle away at this time as a lot of houses close their doors for the winter and others turn themselves into John Lewis shop windows with all their Christmas decorations. I thought I would risk a trip to the Red House in Bexleyheath as it is better known for its associations with William Morris than for its furnishings and artefacts and I thought it might have escaped too much interference from festive fripperies. As it was, Red House’s Christmas tree in the Entrance Hall isn’t too obtrusive and is decorated in a relatively understated Victorian fashion. My only complaint would be the swathes of dried hops that hid parts of the original Philip Webb oak staircase, although I would think the cleaning staff would have more than me to complain about as the same hops were shedding large quantities of cone leaves all over the stairs and someone was going to have to sweep them up!

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You can’t quite see the smiley face on this picture of the staircase ceiling as it’s tucked away in the shadow of a beam.

Like many other properties, the Red House has enthusiastically embraced the concept of the guided talk, with hour-long tours setting off every half an hour between 11am and 1pm, with the house opening for free-flow from 1.30. I had called ahead and booked onto the 12.30 tour but arrived just before 12 so I was bumped up to the earlier one. The tour was excellent, giving some interesting background on William Morris as well as drawing attention to some of the highlights of the house. One lovely little detail pointed out to us was the smiley face painted in a corner of the symmetrically designed ceiling above the staircase. The design of the ceiling is fairly timeless and so it seems is the idea of the smiley face! 🙂 It is not known who added the discreetly positioned face in the corner of the ceiling but it is aiming towards Morris’ bedroom door so it is thought that it was probably one of his friends playing a practical joke.

There are other more obvious contributions from Morris’ pre-Raphaelite friends all over the house, with stained glass and wall paintings created by such famous names as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and Elizabeth Siddal. It is possible that other artworks remain hidden behind the wallpapers of some of the rooms, while a settle in the hall will certainly have more to offer once the brown paint – daubed onto it by a civil servant of the National Assistance Board during the Second World War – can be carefully removed. I am quickly coming to the conclusion that wartime personnel managed to cost the country dear by ruining many of its treasures at stately homes around Britain, leaving charities like the Trust with hefty bills to restore priceless items to their former glories. To be fair, I’m sure those who lived through the war years had rather more to think about at the time than the future of our art and culture, but it’s still a shame that they seemed to be so slap happy with paint and careless with lit cigarettes.

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A Morris ceiling design in the Studio

The Trust clearly has a long-term plan to gradually peel back the layers at Red House in order to reveal what lies beneath the paint and wallpaper. Unfortunately, this is a costly business so it could be some time before all of its art can be uncovered. I will certainly be interested in going back if and when the Drawing Room ceiling has been restored to its original design; the Trust has put together what they think it would look like on a display board and it would be great to see Morris’ original design in its rightful place overhead.

The art that exists at Red House is the result of Morris’ dreams as he hoped that it would become home to a community of working artists and he encouraged his talented friends to visit and contribute. Although this dream would never come to full fruition and Morris’ own occupancy of Red House lasted just 5 years, it is appropriate that the house remains a memorial to him and his contemporaries. An inscription that Morris put over one of the bold red brick fireplaces in the house reads ‘Ars Longa Vita Brevis’ or ‘Life is short, but art endures’ – very apt words considering that Red House now draws visitors specifically for its artistic merits.

As usual, my guided tour revealed a number of interesting little facts that I might not have picked up elsewhere. The first is the story of the value of Red House.  Philip Webb, the architect of Red House (and of Standen, another NT property, later in his career), was a friend of William Morris as the two of them had worked together at the offices of the Gothic Revival architect GE Street (whose notable works include the Royal Courts of Justice). They collaborated closely on the designs for Red House, which cost a total of £4,000 to build. Just five years later, when Morris and his wife Janey sold the house to move back into London, the hammer came down at only £1,800. In fact, in the 1950s when the last private owners bought the house, it still sold for less than Morris had paid to build it, with a price tag of £3,500. Unfortunately for the National Trust, by the time it was in a position to take on the house in 2003 (with help from several benefactors), life in the property world was very different and they had to part with almost £2 million. Morris would no doubt have felt that the house’s true value was finally being appreciated!

Another story that I was particularly drawn to was the presence of a wombat in one of the wall paintings by Burne Jones. Originally thought to be a dog, it was somewhat surprising when experts decided it was actually a wombat sleeping under a chair! There is a reason for Burne Jones’ choice, however, as his friend Rossetti had once had a couple of pet wombats (along with various other exotic animals) so the Australian critter was something of a favourite with the pre-Raphaelites. You can even buy a cuddly wombat in the Red House shop!

Speaking of the shop, lovers of William Morris designs and the pre-Raphaelite painters will find this something of a goldmine for gifts and treats as it has a refreshingly different stock from the usual offerings at NT shops. There are some interesting books and a multitude of souvenirs featuring the well-known William Morris designs. These designs are also represented in some of the wallpapers inside the house but these are modern reprints and during his time at Red House (1860-1865), Morris was not yet in the wallpaper design business.

If you want to eat at Red House, the café produces a selection of cakes and light lunches. It is fairly small (although there is more seating outside for the busier summer months) but I easily managed to get a table as most of the other visitors were outside waiting for the Medieval mummers to get the afternoon’s entertainment underway. It sounded like they were all enjoying themselves immensely, as they booed, hissed and laughed at all the appropriate moments but I left them to it, tucked into my soup and headed home. (NB: On a practical note, there is no car park at Red House so visitors are directed to the Danson Park car park, which is less than a mile away. I wouldn’t encourage hordes of visitors to flood the nearby residential streets with cars, but it was a quiet Sunday when I visited and there were plenty of spaces in some of the wider neighbouring streets.)

This will no doubt be my last visit of 2014 and I’ve left myself with around 200 to go. I feel like I’m rattling through them and then I look at the numbers and the end would only be in sight if I borrowed the Hubble telescope! I’ll aim to present a review of the year sometime in January but I doubt I’ll be back with any significant new entries until the spring. So adieu for now!

Highlights: The ceiling designs and pre-Raphaelite wall art

Refreshments: Carrot and coriander soup

Purchase(s): Guidebook

Companion(s): None

NT Connections: Standen (a later house designed by the architect Philip Webb and with Morris & Co interiors); Wightwick Manor & Gardens (Morris & Co interiors and pre-Raphaelite paintings); Cragside (Morris & Co interiors)

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