The house was designed by Philip Webb, from preliminary sketches drawn on the back of a map while Morris, Webb and Charles Faulkner were on a boat trip in 1858. Webb and Faulkner were to be Morris’s lifelong friends, as was Edward Burne-Jones whom Morris met at Oxford. It was on a visit to the cathedrals of northern France together in 1855 that they determined to devote their lives to art.
Red House became a centre for Morris’s circle, with friends coming for weeks at a time. They were often pressed into painting the walls and ceilings. Morris wanted the house to look like a jewel box, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote that it was ‘more of a poem than a house‘.
In the evenings the friends feasted in the hall with Morris enthroned like a medieval king on his painted gothic chair. There was laughter, games of hide and seek, teasing of Morris about his increasing girth, embroidered hangings to stitch, music at the piano and on one occasion an apple fight during which Morris sustained a black eye.
Start of a design icon
It was at Red House in 1861 during a gathering including Morris, Webb, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Faulkner that it was decided to begin ‘The Firm’, with Ford Madox Brown and Peter Paul Marshall. Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company produced mural decoration, stained glass, metal work and furniture; later it became Morris & Company. Morris’s inability to find furniture and household goods to his taste fuelled his determination to have nothing in the house ‘which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.
A family home
Morris’s daughters Jenny and May were born in 1861 and 1862 but as ‘The Firm’ took off, Morris was frequently away working. He asked Webb to design an extension, where the Burne-Jones family would live to save both travelling and the expense of running the house and workshop premises. However, in summer 1864 disaster struck when Georgiana Burne-Jones caught scarlet fever and lost her baby; Burne-Jones withdrew from the projected house share.
The end of a dream
Morris, realising his dreams of a medieval rural working brotherhood were not realisable, put Red House on the market. The family left in 1865 to live over the workshop and Morris never came back. He said later that the sight of the house would be more than he could bear.