Interior Inspiration from The Red House
Last week I had a thoroughly enjoyable visit to the Red House in Bexleyheath. For those of you who don't know (and I didn't until a couple of months ago), it is the iconic Arts and Crafts home and passion project of the English textile designer, artist and writer William Morris. In fact it was the only house commissioned, created and lived in by Morris and is a building of extraordinary architectural and social significance. It was co-designed and built by his close university and architect friend Philip Webb and I feel that this property not only tells the story of a very creative man but allows us to understand the human emotions and journey behind building a family home and new business. If I'm completely honest I've always thought Morris' designs a little bit too traditional for my own interiors but I'm starting to see a huge Morris resurgence, especially in some of my friends homes and my mind is definitely being changed! I can identify with his love of nature for interior design so I'm hoping to share some ways of modernising this Victorian look. As you know I love finding ways to use antiques and vintage items in modern room schemes so I'm excited with how this can be done with Morris' wallpaper and textiles.
A House of Creativity
But first I want to share a little of my visit to the Red House. It resides in suburban Bexleyheath and the site is surrounded by typical 1930s semis. But originally, William choose this quiet sparse countryside for some peace and quiet away from the hustle and bustle of the city but still be able to commute there to grow his new business Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. He choose this particular spot as it was a beautiful apple orchard and would have been relatively close to Canterbury and he was a big Chaucer fan. He also would have had access to Lesnes Abbey which would have been a short horse and cart ride away. Along with Webb this house was a passion project and he'd hoped for it to be his 'forever home'. He took real pride in using the best craftsman for each job during the building work and actually did a lot of the work himself. Morris poured his soul into the house which he built for his family and would entertain friends there with wine and poems and in return they would help him paint some of the rooms and furniture. There was a real spirit of creativity in this house and lots of that freedom and joy can still be seen inside.
But also a House of Heartbreak...
However things were about to change. Within a few years of moving into the Red House the firm had begun to take off and the long commute from Bexleyheath to London was taking its toll on Morris’ health. Morris came up with the idea of moving the firm to Bexleyheath and building an extension to Red House to house Edward Burne-Jones and his family. In 1864 he asked Philip Webb to design this extension. Unfortunately however, the Burne-Jones’ lost a son to scarlet fever and chose to remain in London, putting an end to Morris dream of rural life in Bexleyheath. The pressures of the successful business mounting Morris sold Red House and moved his family above the workshop (26 Queens Square, Bloomsbury). Heartbroken by the move it is said Morris could never bear to return to Red House as it would break his heart.
A letter from Webb to Morris was found under the floorboards during repair work in 2005. It was very optimistic in spirit regarding the re-location of the business and enquired after Morris' health and it turns out that this letter was written days before the sad news of his colleagues losing a baby. Knowing this before entering the house really set the tone for my tour. As I wandered around I could almost hear the music being played and see the wine being drunk as I tried to envisage Morris entertaining close friends during his short five year stay at the Red House. I almost felt slightly sad as I journeyed from room to room but I also find it inspiring that in spite of these difficult and sad events, Morris rose from the ashes to build a creative business that he probably had no idea would have such a lasting legacy. Without getting too deep in an interiors blog, I find these stories of survival the most inspiring and knowing more about Morris' personal life enhanced my experience of this lovely building.
The building Itself
Philip Webb's independent career as an architect began in 1859 with the Red House which was designed for William Morris and his bride Janey and was 'very medieval in spirit'. Webb was quiet and even-tempered which acted as the perfect foil to Morris’s ebullience and they quickly became firm friends. They shared a love of the English countryside and this project funded by Morris’ private income was to provide Webb with his first independent commission and launch his career.
At the Red House, Webb provided Morris with a blank canvas to create a home which celebrated his enthusiasm for all things medieval. Rossetti when he saw it for the first time declared it ‘more a poem than a house’. Webb did not stop when he had designed the architecture of a house, but concerned himself with every last detail. For all his commissions he designed furniture, glassware, candle-sticks, chairs, even picture-hooks and finger-plates.
Let's journey through the house so you can see where this man and his family lived. Imagine the children playing together in the hall, the parties that took place in the dining room and the moments when William would have been standing with his paint brush creating his repeating pattern across the walls and ceilings...
The Morris family only resided in this beautifully crafted house for five years and it was then was passed down through several private hands until it was acquired by the National Trust in 2007. Since 2013 extensive conservation and exploratory work has uncovered the paint colours and designs underneath the fresher mid-century paint and wallpaper. More recently a Pre-Raphaelite painting that is assumed to be by Morris and his friends such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown was discovered behind a wardrobe. All of these now renowned Pre-Raphaelite painters had a passion for the Medieval past just like Morris.
The wallpaper you see below is not the original wall covering as it was added in the 1960s but is sympathetic to Morris' style of bringing the beauty of nature inside in repeated pattern format. However the ceiling paintings are original and I find the one in the main hallway surprisingly modern for the time!
Below are the original colours that have been discovered underneath the wallpaper and paint that has been applied since Morris' original decoration and considering the current trend of dark rooms, it's easy to suggest what current paint colours could match up to these. Studio Green and Eating Room Red would be a good match for the shades below, both by Farrow and Ball.
I found the gardens very tranquil and a lovely space to be with my own thoughts. It's clear that Morris must have got some inspiration from the outdoor space at the Red House for his earliest designs and decorative schemes.
A Modern Approach
On my recent 'Journey Home' blog post, Mary's daughter who has recently left home for university choose some Morris and Co. Iris wallpaper for her bedroom and I love how well it works in a modern fifties space. The clean square lines of the picture frames give such a different look and this particular Iris print is so fresh and bright.
Another friend is considering the Bramble wallpaper to update her living room which already has a Morris lampshade and Morris prints hanging on the white walls . We were chatting recently and she was questioning how many walls to wallpaper and also how she could incorporate other mid-century items against such a strong dark pattern. For me this is one of the most exciting parts of interior design - experimenting (here's the scientist in me coming out) with different colours and styles as you'll be surprised what can work together. And I believe this creative approach is key in making a place really unique and expressive of your personality. For some more Morris modern schemes hop over to my Pinterest board.
Below is an example of how you can marry mid-century with a Morris & Co. floral patterned wallpaper and shows how bolder colours and stronger lines work very well against the more delicate and detailed Morris' prints.
Although it may seem I have little in common with William Morris (especially since I did not study Architecture at Oxford!) there is so much I can identify with this man in terms of his approach to interiors and the meaning of home. Everything John and I approach in our 1930s semi is done with our whole hearts. We only choose colour, furniture and accessories that we absolutely love or that are meaningful. Most of the physical work we do ourselves too. I always paint our rooms and woodwork and John can even tile, fit kitchens and floors as well as a bit of carpentry work. In this sense we pour time and love into our home-making for the purpose to then enjoy being in the space and bless our friends just like Morris did (sorry we haven't done this for ages guys but I promise we'll have you over when the extension is done!). I can also recall when I was heavily pregnant engaging the help of my friends to finish painting the living room so we would have a place to relax when Jack was born (little did we know Jack would actually be born on the floor in that room a couple of months later). So like Morris our children were born and raised in our current home and what I am trying to convey is that there is such a close connection to the space and the brick (and timber) walls that we live in that I can only imagine the pain of having to leave a home that you had lovingly created. The fact that his children Jenny and May would have been pre-school age while he was creating the Red House as well as at a time when he was trying to build a business is just a bit too close to the bone. So in the spirit of Morris let's create homes for the intention to create joyful memories with family and friends and create spaces that really reflect our unique personalities. As I am conscious that we are about to embark on our renovation project in a few weeks, I think it helps helps explain why my journey through this home was a little emotional which really took my by surprise!
Why not make a little visit?
I know that I've given away some of 'his story' but I'd thoroughly recommend a visit to the Red House as the lovely volunteers who will show you around will only bring the place even more to life. Not only that but the delightful gardens are so tranquil and the cafe is also a little gem. It's situated where the original kitchen would have been and painted in an atmospherically warm mustard colour. I can heartily recommend the homity pie but good luck choosing a cake. They all looked so scrummy! The servants quarters house the staff offices which were apparantly ample sized for the workers which is only to be expected considering that Morris was part of the Socialist movement. If you have kids there is a wombat trail through the rooms and some lego and drawing opportunities in the original kids bedrooms. I think when Edward Burne-Jones said that the Red House was "the beautifullest place on earth" he wasn't only talking about the fine-crafted architecture and cutting-edge Victorian decor, but he was also referring to the wonderfully creative memories that this house held for Morris and his friends. I hope as you journey through this family home that it will help you make a connection to your own place of residence and realise the importance that it has in your life and help you reflect on how to pour your heart and ideas into it to make it even more unique and special.
Many thanks to the team at the Red House for their help and access to the property.
DISCLAIMER: All photography my own unless otherwise stated.