London: Red House

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Well, here’s another William Morris related property (It’s been a while though!  I think all that leaves is Kelmscott Manor, which I’ll probably have to hit up the next time I’m near Gloucestershire).  Even though it’s still technically in Greater London (really only about 18 miles away from where I live), we’d been holding off on visiting because we’d have to drive from one end of South London to t’other to get there, which takes an annoyingly long time.  But on an unpleasant rainy weekend where we’d already spent the Saturday trapped inside, riding in the car on a Sunday seemed preferable to just sitting in the flat all day again, and at least we could explore a cool house when we got there.

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Red House is a National Trust property (I’ve been pretty good about not including those for a while, but I’ve got another one coming up next week.  I purposely didn’t write about a few smaller sites I visited to save you the boredom of reading about them.  You’re welcome), so we waltzed right in, otherwise it’s 8 quid, which I would be hesitant to pay, if I were in your shoes (also, the National Trust recently redesigned their website, and I hate it!  It’s a pain in the ass to navigate, and when you click on things, they just pop up over the same stupid screen instead of having their own address, so whenever I try clicking the back button, out of habit, it just takes me back to Google or whatever I was on before their website.  It’s awful).  Red House is a bit weird in that they offer guided tours until 1, and then after that (and only after that), you’re allowed to wander the property on your own.  So if you want to avoid a guided tour, show up at 1:30 or later, otherwise get there as early as possible to get your ass on a tour.

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I know I like to bitch about getting ignored by National Trust volunteers, but that was not the case here at all.  Someone greeted us as soon as we walked in the door and gave us a detailed tour of the entrance hall, and volunteers in other rooms were equally anxious to fill us in on all things William Morris.  (I’m not going to go into much background here, because I’ve done it before on other William Morris posts, but by all means look him up if you’re not familiar with his work.)  And this was during the “free flow” time!  The house was commissioned by William Morris, and designed by his friend Philip Webb to showcase Morris’s Arts and Crafts aesthetic.  It was completed in 1860, and Morris moved in with his wife, Janey, and proceeded to have two children here in short order, but moved out only five years later when the commute to London became too much (the surrounds being countryside at the time, in contrast to the ugly urban sprawl that exists today).

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Because Morris lived here for a relatively short time, much of the decor was left unfinished, like the ceilings that had pin pricks painstakingly marked out as a guide for painting patterns on them (alliteration), where only a small section ended up being painted (later owners filled in more of the design, but it’s still far from complete).  The walls are papered in Morris & Co prints, but that too was done by the later owners; Morris himself seemed more into painting the walls with his artist friends like Edward Burne-Jones and Lizzie Siddal (Pre-Raphaelite model and ill-fated wife of Rossetti).  There also isn’t much furniture, but thanks to all the small Morris-y details, these limitations aren’t terribly noticeable.

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The incredibly detailed room guides also help with that, as do the unusually effusive volunteers.  Even though the house isn’t that big, you can still spend a fair amount of time in each room just reading or listening.  And there’s a couple rooms with activities (if looking through wallpaper samples can be called an activity; I reckon it can.  That’s how I used to pass the long, boring hours trapped in home improvement stores with my parents.  What can I say, wallpaper samples are a hell of a lot more interesting that bathroom taps or cabinet handles). There’s also some Lego stuff, and some sketchbooks where you can share your William Morris inspired art; my boyfriend drew a crackin’ wombat, but failed to snap a picture.  Wombats are a recurring theme throughout the house; one was recently discovered inside one of the Burne-Jones paintings, and they even have Christmas workshops where you can make your own wombat ornament.

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There’s lots of delightful painted stained glass throughout the house (more on that later), but there are three main actual paintings here worth speaking about.  The first is a cabinet in the entryway, painted by Morris himself.  He was, by his own admission, pretty crap at painting people, especially his wife, but he still did a much, much better job than I could ever do, and the detailing on their clothing is beautiful (you can see it in the third picture in this post).  The second is a mural that was hidden behind a cabinet built by previous owners, and was only discovered in 2013.  So I think they may still be working on restoring it, but it is based on figures from Genesis (the book of the Bible, not the band, though I would think it was hilarious if someone had a Arts and Crafts style Phil Collins painted on their wall.  And I would totally get an Arts and Crafts Departure-era Steve Perry on mine), and though it’s very faded, you can make out some of the details, particularly the figure of Rachel, who is believed to have been painted by Lizzie Siddal, when she was staying with the Morrises for a time when she was ill (I guess with her laudanum addiction?).  The third is a sort of medieval banquet mural painted by Burne-Jones, and judging by the animals hidden throughout the picture, I suspect this is the one with the wombat in it.

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This latter mural was in a room with a cool little stage in it, built for Christmas plays, apparently, though I probably would have hauled a bunch of cushions up there and built some kind of a fort.  With books.  And candy.  Also upstairs is one of the few sections of the ceiling where Morris actually finished the painting; hidden in one corner is a little smiley face, which a volunteer showed us with her flashlight.  It’s neat to think it was painted over 150 years ago by Morris or one of his friends, since smiley faces seem like more of a modern thing (I like to think Philip Webb painted it; he’s my favourite).

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One of the guides made sure to point out to us that all of this was done when Morris was in his mid-20s, as were his friends, which really made us feel inadequate.  I mean, my boyfriend and I are both 30, and we can’t even afford to buy a house, let alone have one built for us in a style we invented, and hand-paint all the features inside it, all whilst running our own business.  So I suppose it is somewhat gratifying in a schadenfreude kind of way that Morris quickly became overwhelmed, and had to abandon the place to move to London (and never returned, as the sight of his dream home would have caused him too much pain).  On the other hand, it’s a shame he never got to finish it, because it really is a beautiful home (much as I tend to prefer the overly ornate style of Victorian architecture.  I want a house with a turret).  I’d kill for that staircase and balcony, or the bird windows downstairs.

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Yep, I’m a complete sucker for a chicken (I found these amazing chicken plates at Anthropologie a while back, but I didn’t buy them because I have enough trouble storing all my dishes as it is.  I still regret it).  I liked all the stained glass, but the chicken windows (actually, the one I really like is a rooster, I think) were my favourites by far (painted by Philip Webb, who was also responsible for drawing most of the animals in Morris’s wallpaper designs.  No wonder I’ve always loved Trellis and Strawberry Thief, which has particularly derpy birds in the pattern).

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The final room was a museum room, with a timeline of Morris’s life for the years he lived in Red House, some objects donated by Philip Webb, who outlived Morris by nearly twenty years (Morris “wore himself out,” apparently, and died in his 60s), and the awesome caricatures by Burne-Jones pictured above.  Webb’s possessions included Morris’s snuffbox, which was given to him in Morris’s will, and a pistol he carried everywhere with him.  I guess he was kind of paranoid in his old age?

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The property also includes a small garden, a shop, and a tearoom, which had a Christmas wombat peeking out of the kitchen window.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the house, given the small amount of furnishings, and the National Trust-ness.  It’s certainly not worth 8 quid, but if you’re a National Trust member, I think this is one worth checking out to see all the whimsical touches (seriously, I love that damn chicken/rooster. I even bought a postcard of it in the gift shop.  They also have stuffed wombats, though I resisted temptation in that case).  3.5/5.

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I also got to do something else I’ve been meaning to do for a long time, while we were sort of in the area: see the Pocahontas statue in Gravesend!  You see, after Pocahontas married John Rolfe, and returned to England with him for a visit, she (inevitably) picked up one of the many European diseases she hadn’t had a chance to build up an immunity to (possibly smallpox or TB) and died in Gravesend, en route to a ship back to Virginia.  She’s buried in St. George’s Church here, which has irregular opening hours that aren’t posted on their website, so we didn’t get to see the inside of the church, but we did get to see the statue next to it.  Gravesend is not really a nice place to visit, but the statue and church are pretty damn cool, and only about a 20 minute drive from Bexley.

Oh, and ’tis the season I guess, so Merry Christmas everybody!

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9 comments

  1. I loved every inch of this, and the Arts and Crafts-Phil Collins comment killed me! You’re too funny. Also, I would love to have the wombat looking out from the kitchen as my next Christmas card image. Just delightful. Merry Christmas!

    1. I don’t know if I’m funny, or I just listen to too much classic rock! 🙂 Christmas wombats for all! Hell, I’ll stick a Santa hat on anything..currently my skeleton Vincent is sporting one (in lieu of his usual flat cap), and I’ve even got a miniature version on my talking FDR doll! Merry Christmas to you too!

      1. Gorgeous, though not too keen on the colour either. There are sandstone turrets round here, but I’d want the whole house not just an apartment so beyond my means!

      2. Yeah, I currently live in a Victorian house that has been converted into flats, but there’s no turret, even if I had the top floor. Wimbledon houses all tend to be that brown brick (dunno the proper name) with red bricks around the doors and windows, but there are still some lovely ones around the Common, if only I had 5 million quid or so to spare! I’m still a sucker for American Victorian though; there’s something about all that (highly flammable) wood detailing!

      3. Yes, they are very striking. Have stayed in a few that have been converted into b&bs – they don’t tend to be too convenient inside!

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