The history of Red House


In 1859, newly married, William Morris commissioned his friend, the young architect Phillip Webb, to build him a house. Not only was the house intended to be a family home, but Morris envisioned a place where he and his circle of friends could live and work according to the idealistic ideals and aspirations that a shared love of medieval literature and art had engendered.

" It was not a large house…but purpose and proportion had been so skilfully observed in its design as to arrange for all reasonable demands and leave an impression of ample space everywhere."
- Georgiana Burne-Jones

Morris was heavily involved in the design of Red House, resulting in a surprising mix of Medieval romanticism with, soaring gable roofs and oriel windows, and the architect’s practicality, creating what Rossetti described as '…more a poem than a house…' .

Medieval in Spirit

William and Jane Morris moved into Red House in June 1860 and set about furnishing and decorating the interiors, with designs of their own. Taking inspiration from medieval works or art and literature, Red House was decorated in bold, jewel-like tones and the walls hung with embroideries and pictures.

Unable to find furniture to his taste in the shops of the time, Morris again commissioned his friend Phillip Webb to design dressers, settles, beds and table glass all in a pared back, Gothic style that complimented the romantic style of the house. 

Webb wasn’t the only artistic friend of the Morris’ who helped with the decoration of the house, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal and Edward Burne-Jones all contributing to mural paintings and furniture decoration. Indeed, it was this communality and atmosphere of artistic experimentation and invention, that directly led to the founding of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. – otherwise known as 'The Firm' – in 1861.

The stencilled ceiling in the Upper Hallway at Red House, Bexleyheath, London was painted by William Morris, Philip Webb and friends
Close detail of the Upper Hallway ceiling at Red House
The stencilled ceiling in the Upper Hallway at Red House, Bexleyheath, London was painted by William Morris, Philip Webb and friends

Palace of Art

A key design tenet of The Firm was a respect for traditional and hand-crafted artwork. In 1862, the firm attracted lots of attention at the Great London Exposition and within a few years the business was successfully growing.

The commute between Red House and the company’s headquarters in London, were proving to be an arduous chore for Morris, and in 1864 Morris asked Webb to draw up plans for an extension to Red House. The proposals consisted of living arrangements for Edward Burne-Jones and his family, along with workshops for the Company, '…if only Edward came to live there also, how much more could be got through together than separately.' (Georgiana Burne-Jones)

Webb’s plans envisaged creating a complete quadrangle around the high-roofed, red brick well, with separate entrances for each family. His initial plans had to be scaled back, due to the high costs involved, but plans were made for building to commence in 1865. Alas, '…a lovely plan was made, too happy ever to come about.' (Edward Burne-Jones) After a joint family holiday to Littlehampton, Georgiana Burne-Jones contracted scarlet fever, leading to premature birth and death of her baby Christopher. The Burne-Jones’ withdrew from the plans to expand Red House, and Morris was thus compelled to move his family back to London.

National Portrait Gallery: William Morris
William Morris
National Portrait Gallery: William Morris

End of the idyll

Morris returned to London and threw himself into the work of The Firm, but such was his heartbreak that he insisted in 1866 on selling Red House for “…he could not bear to play landlord to the house he loved so well…” (Georgiana Burne-Jones). It is not believed that he ever returned to Red House. He never owned another home, instead leasing Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, with Rosetti in 1871, and is buried in the nearby churchyard of St George’s Church.