Friday, August 15, 2008

Bexley Heath, England

Designed for William Morris in 1859 by his friend and coworker Philip Webb, the Red House in the London suburb of Bexley Heath has been called “a cornerstone in the history of English domestic architecture.” Much more than that, although in one sense a piece of eclectic architecture, it was a milestone in the way that architects designed houses, making the house to fit the occupant, rather than (as had been the case) forcing the occupants to fit the house: the earliest glimpse of functionally constrained design. Early in the twentieth century the German critic Hermann Muthesius recognized it as “the first house to be conceived as a whole inside and out, the very first example in the history of the modern house.” At that moment, the ideas behind it were taken up and developed by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and fed back into the European Modern Movement.

The now-famous English social reformer, designer, novelist, and poet William Morris (1834–1896) originally intended to become a Church of England priest. While at university he decided to devote himself to art. He then worked briefly for the Gothic Revival architect G. E. Street, but influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, soon turned, also briefly, to painting. In 1857 he met Jane Burden, one of Rossetti’s models, and two years later they were married in Oxford. Morris was financially independent—his annual income of £900 was substantial—and in summer 1858, while on a rowing holiday in France, he decided to build a house at Upton in Kent, southeast of London. He commissioned the architect Philip Webb (1831–1915), with whom he had worked in Street’s office, to design a house “very medieval in spirit” and “in the style of the thirteenth century.” Webb resigned his position and commenced work on his first building as an independent architect.

Named for its brick walls and clay tile roofs, the Red House was indeed medieval in spirit. It rejected the formal aspects of the fashionable Gothic and the exotic Italianate for the familiar vernacular—“homegrown” English domestic architecture, emphasizing the spirit, not the letter, of a medieval past that Morris and his friends viewed with wistful longing. The house was simple and (remarkably for its day) free from architectural ornament. One writer has commented, “Form was more important than decoration. Outside it [had] steeply tiled roofs, long ridge-lines, tall chimney-stacks and steeply recessed porches. Inside it had plain tiled floors, a simple open staircase and large wooden dressers” (Bradley 1978, 26). The house was begun in 1859 and completed within a year.

Rossetti thought it “more of a poem than a house … but an admirable place to live in too.” That livability was because Webb designed the Red House to suit the Morrises’ needs. At that time, houses were planned according to usually symmetrical, formal geometries, and their occupants were obliged to tailor their daily lifestyle to the limits imposed by the architecture. The Red House’s L-shaped plan, partly enclosing a courtyard, was unconventional and informal, and rooms were disposed according to the way in which the Morrises intended to use them. The east wing of the first floor contained the kitchen and service rooms; its north wing had a waiting room and a bedroom. The dining room was at the northeast corner, off the large central hall. The main entrance was at the north end of the hall; at the other, an open oak staircase led to the second floor, which housed bedrooms, servants’ quarters, and a drawing room at the northeast corner, over the dining room. There was a large L-shaped study at the western end. Morris’s biographer Fiona MacCarthy asserts that the house was the symbolic point of departure for his crusade against the Industrial Age.
Much later in life Morris reflected that, because he could not find appropriate furniture and furnishings in English shops, he decided “with all the conceit of youth” (he was twenty-five) that he would design and make them for himself. With Webb, Jane Morris, and his Pre-Raphaelite friends he decorated the house; they painted medieval-style murals, constructed furniture, sewed embroideries, wove tapestries, and designed wallpapers and stained-glass windows. In fact, the Red House and its contents—“a temple to art and craft”—were at the very foundation of the English Arts and crafts Movement, both literally and philosophically.

Morris then realized that his interest lay in the decorative arts, and the success of the Red House collaboration provoked the formation of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. in 1861; the firm’s brochure described it as “Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals.” The partners were Morris, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, the painter Ford Madox Brown, Philip Webb, Charles James Faulkner, and Peter Paul Marshall, a surveyor. The Red House housed the firm’s workshops, and they continued to design and manufacture all the types of artifacts that had been produced for it. In November 1865 Morris, because of lack of money (the firm was mismanaged), moved his family to new Queen Square, Bloomsbury, London, to share premises with the firm. The Red House was sold.

It was owned as of 2001 by Mrs. Doris Hollamby. She and her architect husband Edward (died 1999) bought it in 1952, after it had been used for offices of the National Assistance Board during World War II. The Hollambys undertook to accurately restore the house, which is now open to the public. An association known as the Friends of Red House has been formed to support the Red House Trust, in order to physically maintain the house, its garden, and orchard, and secure its “long-term future.”

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