I’ve always had a passion for the Arts and Crafts movement, that distinctly 19th Century style epitomised by rustic houses filled with exquisite hand-crafted furnishings and arty interiors.
The Arts and Crafts style is a million miles away from today’s minimalist house designs. It echoes back to an earlier time before grimy cities, mass industrial production and ‘urban ugliness’ took hold.
For years I’ve wanted to visit The Red House, one of the beacons of the Arts and Crafts movement, an oasis of peace and tranquility on the outskirts of London.
In its day it was dubbed “more a poem than a house”. The Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones called it “the beautifullest place on earth” when he set eyes on it in 1860.
The Red House is without doubt a gem set in the middle of drab suburban Bexleyheath, a short train ride from Charing Cross and London’s bustling city streets.
When you travel to Bexleyheath station, you still have to walk 1/2 mile through monotonous suburban sprawl to reach this oasis in a sea of modern mediocrity.
‘Palace of art’
Once upon a time the Red House would have been surrounded by countryside but today it’s hard to imagine this scene as suburbia has crept right up to its gates.
In the 1860s farms and meadows would have encircled the house; a sole thatched cottage nearby is the only remnant of that rural landscape.
Today, if you close your ears and eyes to the suburban surroundings, you can almost find yourself back in the Victorian era for a few minutes, before the sound of throbbing traffic disturbs the tranquility.
There’s no doubt that this beautiful red brick house is a treat…. it’s also perhaps the best example of domestic architecture anywhere in England.
Designed by the architect Philip Webb, the house was a rural retreat for Pre-Raphaelite artist, designer and socialist William Morris and his wife, Jane.
William Morris was the founder of the Arts & Crafts movement, a poet, social reformer, painter and designer.
He wanted to create a “palace of art” in the Red House, a place of sublime beauty.
During its heyday poets and painters would come to be entertained at the house including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Burne-Jones and Algernon Swinburne.
As well as socialising and partying, the artists would help to decorate the house’s interior with their designs.
The end result was the stunning stained glass windows, decorative features and distinctive interiors which can still be seen today.
It’s easy to forget that the Red House was a huge revolution in design compared to the over-cluttered, fussy style that was prevalent in the Victorian period.
The entrance hall boasts gorgeous stained glass windows through which the summer light filters and radiates across the reception area.
Designed by Edward Burne-Jones, the windows hark back to medieval times when craftsmen produced hand-crafted work in the finest materials.
Home of an artist
The Morris family lived in the Red House during the 1860s and you can get a sense of their lifestyle from the downstairs rooms including the dining area (pictured below).
Sadly many of the rooms seem to be blocked off or are the subject of conservation work, making it difficult to gain an overall impression of how the Morris house looked and functioned in its prime.
Some room and decorative panels are currently being restored and it’s interesting to watch the experts working hard to remove the effects of the ravages of time.
The hand of the Morris’ artistic circle can be seen everywhere, from the wall and ceiling decorations to the fireplaces, wall tiles and the furniture.
But it’s the stained glass windows that give the house a special spiritual feel – like a domestic temple to the arts.
The windows’ rich colours and crafted panels glow as brightly as they must have done 150 years ago.
William and Jane Morris lived in the house for only five years, during which time their two daughters, Jenny and May, were born.
But they were forced to sell the house for financial reasons in 1865, a sad ending to their dream of a perfect house of the arts.
In later years the Red House was home to Charles Holme, who founded the art magazine, The Studio, before being sold to the architect, Edward Maufe.
The final owners included Ted and Doris Hollamby who restored the house and many of the original arts and crafts decorations.
Discovering William Morris
The Red House is without doubt a fascinating building but sadly I didn’t get much of a sense of its owner, William Morris, on my recent visit
I lef the house feeling slightly deflated, perhaps because its presentation leaves something to be desired.
After battling across London and having had a torrid time on public transport to reach the Red House, I was hoping for more illumination about the Morris family and their artistic circle.
This may seem unfair but I feel that the National Trust needs to improve its interpretation and displays. Even a short film show would help to provide some background and context to the story of the house and the Morris family.
A room showing architectural drawings wasn’t particularly engaging and contributed little to enlivening the visit.
Some hastily slung books of Morris’ decorative designs really needed better presentation, even though the patterns were really beautiful.
One of the touchstones of visiting a famous house is that you leave knowing more about the owners than before you visited.
I left the Red House feeling that I still barely knew William Morris – that we were like passing shadows rather than new acquaintances.
The same was true of the architect Philip Webb, the mastermind behind the design of the great house. The portable information boards chronicling the house design were dull with dry lists of the objects in each room.
I’d recommend taking the full guided trip around the house which provided a better insight according to a fellow visitor I got talking to.
The Red House is, in many ways, best discovered from outside… its gables and rustic style are reminiscent of the perfect English village in the Cotswolds or Chilterns.
Once outside, you can step back and discover the house’s features and exquisite detailing including the charming pagoda-like seating area with its curvy roof, which is the focal point of the garden.
William Morris wanted the gardens to be an extension of his beautiful house, for the two to fuse together with nature.
It’s one of the great pleasures of a visit to the Red House on a glorious summer day to walk back in time amongst the apple, pear and cherry trees in bloom.
The peaceful garden is a wonderful oasis from London and Kent outside its walls with its leafy trails, orchard and vegetable garden.
Having forgotten about my slightly fraught journey from London to Bexleyheath, finally I felt like I was far from the madding crowd in the perfect English garden.
The Red House feels intimate, personal and not ‘too grand’. It’s not a mansion with dozens of rooms and gardens that extend for mile upon mile nor is it a place with aristocratic airs and graces.
William Morris and Philip Webb created an artistic escape, a livable home which still feels small-scale and gorgeous.
The Morris family almost feel within touching distance of the visitor. Perhaps on my next trip I’ll get to know them even better?
Tammy’s top tips
The Red House, run by the National Trust is located in Upton, Bexleyheath south east of London.
The house has slightly odd opening times so check before heading out from London. The house is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays in summer and has very limited opening hours in winter.
A self-guided trip around the Red House takes around 45 minutes. The house and grounds are not especially large so speed up your visit if you’re on a tight schedule.
The nearest station is Bexleyheath, an easy 12 minute walk from the Red House.
Trains run from London’s Charing Cross and Waterloo East stations every 30 minutes and take around 35 minutes to reach Bexleyheath.
Be aware that Waterloo East Station is down the road from Waterloo station. Don’t go to Waterloo by mistake.
There’s a taxi office next door to the railway station if you can’t face the walk from the station to the house.
Summer is a great time to visit the Red House when the ambience of the house comes alive with bright sunshine streaming through its stained glass windows. It’s also the time when its beautiful gardens are in full bloom.
Tours of the house are self-guided in the afternoon but visitors can opt for a guided trip during the late morning.
Check out the Friends of the Red House website for more information about the history of the building.
Visitor facilities at the Red House include a stables cafe and a small shop.
If you’re a fan of Arts and Crafts, another ‘must see’ attraction is the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow in inner London which recently won an award for its interpretation work.
If you’re a fan, many of William Morris and Philip Webb’s furniture designs can also be found in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.