“Life is short, but art endures” – William Morris
“Ars Longa Vita Brevis” translates to “Life is short, but art endures” and is the latin motto inscribed above the fire place in the drawing room at Red House.
Red House is not only an incredibly beautiful property, but also one that shaped Morris’ life. Visiting, there’s hints throughout about his ideas about art and life. It was the first and only house Morris ever built and the first independent architectural work of his good friend Philip Webb. It was furnishing this house that inspired Morris to found his company, to give him the textiles and wallpaper with a level of skill and intricacy that he himself looked for. It was the plants and flowers in the garden that in turn shaped the first of his wall paper designs.
Remembered by many of his friends and colleagues as an incredibly happy place, a ‘dream house’ as described by The National Trust due to the fact the years he spent here with his young family were the happiest of his life. The Trust have done an incredible job of preserving ‘the beautifullest place on earth’ as described by Burne-Jones and though the rural setting is gone and many of his original furnishings scattered due to the time that has passed, the building itself is relatively untouched.
It was in the Autumn of 1858, choosing a spot above the Cray valley (at this point, still in open countryside) in Kent, in an area reminding him of his home, Kent. It was whilst in holiday in France with Philip Webb that the idea of Red House was born, and whilst they travelled down the Seine Valley, they sketched the medieval buildings they drew upon for inspiration. After Jane and Morris were married in 1859, the detailed designs for Red House were completed – at this point, it was then on to the build, which took a year and was at all times supervised by both Morris and Webb as the architect. It’s unbelievable to think the total cost of the build was £4,000.
Moving into the home in June of 1860, the decorating process could now begin!
Textile wise, at the time the floors were probably covered in Persian carpets, but all the other textiles Morris designed himself. To decorate, Morris, true to form of his aim of keeping arts and crafts alive, rediscovered forgotten arts of medieval embroidery. Jane spoke of this time decorating, “He taught me the first principles of laying stitches closely so as to cover the ground smoothly and radiating them properly. Afterwards we studied old pieces and by unpicking etc. we learnt very much but it was very uphill work but only carried through by his excessive energy and perseverance.”
Due to the fact Morris found issues in finding furnishings he felt was suitable to decorate his home, it led to the formation of is own business, ‘Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.’ and allowed us to all benefit from their beautiful designs!
The house has always been told through anecdotes as an incredibly happy home, with a constant stream of friends visiting, full of dinners and drinks, with songs sung around the piano – one apple fight in the Drawing Room left Morris with a black eye! Georgiana said, ‘the time we spent together there was one to swear by, if human happiness were doubted.’
Quoted by the National Trust, “By 1864 the Morris firm had outgrown its first premises in Red Lion Square, and, Morris, weary of the daily commute into London, considered moving the whole business out to Bexleyheath. He also tried to get the Burne-Joneses to join him at Red House, commissioning Webb to design a matching range of buildings to enclose the central courtyard for his friends. But late in 1864 Burne-Jones’s young son Philip caught scarlet fever, which he passed on to the heavily pregnant Georgiana. The baby was born prematurely and died after only three weeks. Shattered by this tragedy and worried about money, Borne-Jones decided to pull out of the scheme. Morris and Janey were also both unwell, and their marriage was growing increasingly strained. In 1865 Morris abandoned Red House and, with it, his dream.”
If you ever get the chance to visit Red House, it’s an incredible house to see as any Morris fan, as the hub of many lovely anecdotes and inspirations for Morris, its fabulous to see it in real life! We’ve used the ‘Red House’ booklet from the National Trust for reference and quotes throughout this blog – if you’d like to know more about the house and the individual rooms, make sure you check it out!