William Morris and his Palace of Art at Red House
A series of wall paintings depicting scenes from medieval and ancient texts adorn the rooms at Red House in Kent. They are a vibrant relic of the former highly coloured, richly patterned interiors that were the creation of William and Jane Morris and their close circle of artist friends.
Tessa Wild, former Curator of Red House and author of a new book on the subject, discusses these paintings and the role they played in creating William Morris’s ‘Palace of Art’.
Red House, a Palace of Art
In a letter of 1856, William Morris (1834-1896) first expressed hope for ‘a Palace of Art of my own'. He was referring to Tennyson’s poem 'The Palace of Art', where a man builds a ‘lordly pleasure house’ for his soul. Red House was the realisation of this hope.
Red House was designed as an artist’s studio house by Morris's friend and collaborator, the architect Philip Webb (1831-1915). It was the only house Morris ever commissioned and owned.
Morris spent five, highly industrious and creatively charged years living at Red House. He worked collaboratively to decorate the house with his closest friends including the Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). The resulting decorations were inspired by a rich palette of illuminated manuscripts, medieval glass, textiles and wall paintings that were instrumental in Morris’s formation as an artist and designer.
Loss and survival
Today, more than 150 years after the Morrises resided at Red House, the taste of a succession of owners and the ravages of time have left their mark on the interior. Much of the rich colour and texture which were originally such an intrinsic part of its character have been lost.
There are, however, exquisitive survivals, including a series of tempera wall paintings by Edward Burne-Jones as well as newly discovered decorative schemes that had long been obscured from view by later layers of paint and wallpaper.
What did Red House look like during Morris's time there? It now takes a considerable effort of the imagination to visualise the interior of 1860–5. Thanks to letters, recollections, drawings and studies, as well as architectural paint analysis, it has been possible to identify an overarching decorative sceheme envisaged for the principal rooms of the house.
The drawing room: a paean to love
The theme of love in its many different guises is inherent throughout the house. Morris saw his love for his wife Jane mirrored in medieval poetry and he sought to make the drawing room a paean to the constancy of love as expressed in medieval romances.
In the summer of 1860, the William and Jane Morris decorated the ceiling of the drawing room with a repeating pattern of stylised flower heads on wavy stems, set within a frame of horizontal and vertical bands and repeating geometric fanshaped motifs in shades of brown, yellow and red. On the walls were horizontal painted bands of a salmon-orange, a warm blue-green and dark red. Stylised plants with petals of a brighter red, and white and yellow stems and leaves were repeated to give the impression of an embroidered hanging.
It was in this room that Morris's friend and fellow artist Edward Burne-Jones created a series of dazzling wall paintings depicting scenes from the anonymous, 15th-century poem 'Sir Degrevaunt'.
Sir Degrevaunt, an Arthurian romance
Morris and Burne-Jones had developed a mutual passion for 'Sir Degrevaunt' whilst studying at Oxford. In the poem, Sir Degrevaunt is a knight of the Round Table who falls in love with Melidor, the daughter of an Earl with whom Degrevaunt is feuding. Degrevaunt works to win Melidor’s affection; after a series of conflicts and challenges, he is ultimately allowed to marry Melidor in an elaborately described ceremony.
The final verses of this Arthurian romance - the Wedding Ceremony, the Wedding Procession and the Wedding Feast - were painted by Burne-Jones at eye-level in the drawing room.
A strong sense of the passionate enthusiasm with which Burne-Jones and Morris created the interiors is evoked by Burne-Jones’s recollections:
" As we talked of decorating … plans grew apace. We fixed upon a romance for the drawing room, a great favourite of ours called Sir Degrevaunt. I designed seven pictures from this poem, of which I painted three that summer and autumn in tempera …"
The resulting interior was complex and densely layered and it exploited the architecture to dramatic effect.
Sadly, panelling was introduced sometime after 1866, covering Morris's wall paintings that mimicked embroidered hangings. William and Jane's ceiling decoration was papered over by 1897. It was rediscovered and photographed in 1957 before being obscured with white paint.
Despite the loss of William and Jane's ceiling decoration, Burne-Jones's 'Sir Degrevaunt' paintings were left as a vibrant relic of the former highly coloured, richly patterned interior immortalised by the memories of those who had been part of its creation or witnessed it in the early 1860s.
Jane Morris's bedroom and the discovery of a biblical wall painting
The principal bedroom may have been a shared marital bedroom or solely Jane’s from the outset. Here, Morris created for Jane a densely layered, intimate room of wall paintings, textile hangings and painted furniture.
In 2003, a fragment of wall painting was discovered in a degraded state hidden behind a wardrobe. A section of the wardrobe, which had been constructed in around 1957, was removed to reveal a scene of male and female figures in medieval costume. A laddder or a sword was visible, along with a scroll with largely indecipherable script. The few decipherable words suggested a biblical source for the text, but it did not read consecutively.
In 2013, a comprehensive programme of investigation of the adjoining wall revealed that there was a much more extensive wall painting of five figures and four trees. The surviving painting was painstakingly uncovered by specialist conservators, who removed the later layers of wallpaper and paint. Soon, the figures were identified as Adam, Eve and Noah and the surviving inscriptions were identified as verses from the Book of Genesis.
The body of the painting comprises five figures standing on a green expanse of grass, divided by spindly looking trees against a dark blue backdrop. From the left, adjacent to the door to the room, are Adam and Eve standing on a grassy lawn, on either side of the Tree of Life, around which the serpent is twisted. Eve is depicted recoiling from the serpent, with a bowed head and her hands raised. Adam faces the viewer and stands with his right hand on his hip in a classical pose reminiscent of the Farnese Hercules.
Separated from Eve by a tree is the figure of Noah, cradling a small ark with an intricately detailed fish-scale roof. Alongside Noah stands another tree and then the figure of Rachel with a doleful expression, then a fourth tree and finally the figure of Jacob with a ladder.
A 'chamber of love' for Jane Morris
Morris’s intriguing decision to adorn one wall of the bedroom with a wall painting of five biblical figures again appears to derive from the literary precedent of ‘Sir Degrevaunt’. Indeed, when he conceived the decoration of the room for Jane he was augmenting a visual association already established in the wall painting of ‘The Wedding Feast’ in the neighbouring drawing room.
In the poem, Melidor’s chamber stands as a reflection of her fine character and greatly impresses Sir Degrevaunt. Her ‘chaumbur of loffe [love]’ is finely arrayed with wall paintings of complex biblical iconography and a bed of azure blue hangings. The poetic description caught Morris’s imagination and he created a version of Melidor’s ‘chamber of loffe [love]’ for Jane.
Leaving Red House
The Morrises left Red House in November 1865 and relocated to 26 Queen Square, Bloomsbury where they lived in the upper floors of the house that became the new headquarters of Morris & Co.
William and Jane's feelings are not known but Georgiana Burne-Jones stood as witness to events, and recorded that: 'One of the happiest chapters of our life was closed this year by the sale of Red House. But it had to go, for Morris, having decided in his unflinching way that he must come up and live at his business in London, could not bear to play landlord to the house he loved so well – it must be sold outright and he would never see it again. Nor did he; but some of us saw it in our dreams for years afterwards as one does a house known in childhood.'
" One of the happiest chapters of our life was closed this year by the sale of Red House.... (B)ut some of us saw it in our dreams for years afterwards as one does a house known in childhood. "