William Morris was born in Walthamstow, Essex, on 24 March 1834, and raised into a wealthy middle-class family. Although his father died in 1847, the Morris family remained affluent as a result of shares in the Devon Great Consols copper mines. In 1853 Morris began university studies at Oxford University's Exeter College, focusing on Classics. There, he developed a keen interest in Medieval history and Medieval architecture, inspired by Oxford's many Medieval buildings. This interest was tied to Britain's growing Medievalist movement, a form of Romanticism that rejected many of the values of Victorian industrial capitalism. For Morris, the Middle Ages represented an era with strong chivalric values and an organic, pre-capitalist sense of community, both of which he deemed preferable to his own period. At Oxford, Morris became the best friend of fellow undergraduate Edward Burne-Jones; they had a shared attitude to life and a keen mutual interest in Arthurianism. Having passed his finals and been awarded a BA in 1856, Morris began an apprenticeship with the Oxford-based Gothic revival architect George Edmund Street in January 1856. There he was placed under the supervision of Philip Webb, who became a close friend. He soon relocated to Street's London office, in August 1856 moving into a flat in Bloomsbury, Central London with Burne-Jones. Morris was fascinated by London but dismayed at its pollution and rapid expansion into neighbouring countryside, describing it as "the spreading sore". In October 1857 Morris met Jane Burden, a woman from a poor working-class background, at a theatre performance and asked her to model for him. Smitten with her, they entered into a relationship and were engaged in spring 1858; Burden would later admit however that she never loved Morris. They were married in a low-key ceremony held at St Michael at the North Gate church in Oxford on 26 April 1859, before honeymooning in Bruges, Belgium. Newly married, Morris decided to construct a house for him and his bride. He commissioned Webb, who was setting out as an independent architect independent of Street, to help him design it.
Morris envisioned Red House as being not only a family home, but also a background to his ongoing artistic work. He wanted it to be situated in a rural area that was not far from London, and chose to search in Kent because it was his favourite county; he particularly enjoyed its geographical mix of large open spaces with small hills and rivers, favourably contrasting it to the flat expanse of his native Essex. After looking at various locations for sale in the area, he settled on a plot of land in the village of Upton in West Kent; although ten miles to London by road, it was situated three miles from the nearest railway station, Abbey Wood railway station on the North Kent Line. At Upton, Morris purchased an orchard and a meadow, desiring that his new home be surrounded by an apple and cherry orchard. Morris would likely have been pleased that Upton was close to the track that pilgrims followed to Canterbury Cathedral during the Middle Ages, and would also have had the opportunity to visit the ruins of the Medieval Lesnes Abbey which were around three miles away. Unique in its design, Red House was fashioned to an L-shaped plan, with two stories and a high-pitched roof made of red tile. The large-hall, dining room, library, morning-room, and kitchen were located on the ground floor, while on the first floor were situated the main living-rooms, the drawing-room, the studio, and the bedrooms. The servants' quarters were larger than in most contemporary buildings, reflecting the embryonic ideas regarding working class conditions which would lead Morris and Webb to become socialists in later life. Windows were positioned to suit the design of the rooms rather than to fit an external symmetry; thus a variety of different window types are present, including tall casements, hipped dormers, round-headed sash-windows, and bull's eye windows. The house lacked any applied ornamentation, with its decorative features instead serving constructional purposes, such as the arches over the windows, and the louvre in the open roof over the staircase. According to Morris' biographer J.W. Mackail, the external design of the house was "plain almost to severity, and depended for its effect on its solidity and fine proportion." This was somewhat radical at the time, as most contemporary buildings were heavily furnished with ornamentation. Rosseti termed it "a real wonder of the age ... which baffles all description", while Morris biographer Fiona MacCarthy described it as "the ultimate Pre-Raphaelite building".
Morris and his wife moved into the Red House at the end of the summer of 1860. At the time, he envisioned living there for the rest of his life, although ultimately would only dwell there for five years. Morris' friends regularly came to visit; Burne-Jones and his new bride, Georgiana Burne-Jones, would often spend their Sundays at Red House, while other regular visitors included Rossetti, Faulkner and his two sisters, Webb, Swinburne, Madox Brown, and Arthur Hughes. Here, Burne-Jones and Faulkner often played practical jokes on Morris, for instance doctoring a pack of playing card or sewing up his clothing to make it feel much tighter. The group of friends liked to play hide and seek at the house, and in the evenings would gather around the piano to sing songs. Morris added to both the House's interior and the design of the garden intermittently over the years, aided by his various friends. There was to be no wallpaper anywhere in the House, with the walls instead being painted or covered by tapestries. The walls of the staircase were intended to feature a painted mural by Burne-Jones depicting scenes from the Trojan War, while on the wall of the hall beneath was intended to be a picture of warships carrying the ancient Greek soldiers to Troy. Although depicting scenes from ancient Classical mythology, Morris had wanted the designs to be Medieval in style, with the warships being based on those of the fourteenth century. On the hallway cupboard, Morris began (although never finished) a painting based on Thomas Malory's tale of how Sir Lancelot brought Sir Tristram and La Belle Iseult to the castle of the Joyous Garde. The figures themselves are depictions of some of Morris' friends, among them Jane, Faulkner, the Burne-Joneses, and Lizzie Siddel. It was while living at Red House, in April 1861, that Morris co-founded a decorative arts company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., with six other partners: Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Webb, Ford Madox Brown, Charles Faulkner, and Peter Paul Marshall. Operating from a premises at No. 6 Red Lion Square, they referred to themselves as "the Firm" and were intent on adopting Ruskin's ideas of reforming British attitudes to production. They hoped to reinstate decoration as one of the fine arts and adopted an ethos of affordability and anti-elitism. For additional staff, they employed boys from the Industrial Home for Destitute Boys in Euston, central London, many of whom were trained as apprentices. Although working within the Neo-Gothic school of design, they differed from Neo-Gothic architects like Gilbert Scott who simply included certain Gothic features on modern styles of building; instead they sought to return completely to Medieval Gothic methods of craftmanship. Limited pre-booked mobility parking, ring 020 8304 9878. Building - two steps to entrance (ramps are available). Stairs to other floors. Large colour photo album available. Grounds - partly accessible on uneven brick path Accessible toilet. Only guide dogs allowed.
Location : Red House Lane, Bexleyheath, London, DA6 8JF
Transport: Bexleyheath (National Rail). London Buses routes 89, 422, 486, B11 and B16; B12 and B15 Arriva Kent Thameside; B14 Metrobus; 96 Selkent. All stop at Upton Road.
Opening Times: Wednesday to Sunday 11:00 to 17:00.
Re-Opening 2nd March.
Tickets : Adult £7.70; Child £3.80.
Garden Only : Adult £2.00. Child £1.00.
Tel: 0208 304 9878