The Arts and Crafts Movement at Red House

The carved back of a Rossetti style Arts and Crafts chair at Red House

The Arts and Crafts Movement, was an aesthetic movement that grew in popularity in the second half of the nineteenth century as artists reacted and responded to the rapid urbanisation brought about by the British Industrial Revolution.

Arts and Crafts in the Home

The roots of the Arts and Crafts Movement extend back to the Gothic Revivalist movement of the 1840s. Artists looked back to the art and architecture from before the Renaissance and viewed it in idealised terms of morality. In comparison to the social changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, this medieval period seemed idyllic.

When Morris and Webb designed Red House and eschewed all unnecessary decoration, instead choosing to champion utility of design, they gave expression to what would become known as the Arts and Crafts Movement. Morris’ work as both a designer and a socialist were intrinsically linked, as the creation of the Arts and Crafts Movement attests. Neither career should be viewed in isolation, one or the other.

Windows at Red House, Bexleyheath
Windows at Red House
Windows at Red House, Bexleyheath

Webb selected local, and therefore readily available, red bricks as his construction material, supporting the areas’ tradition of brick making. Rather than covering the façade of the house, the red brick was allowed to remain on view, celebrating the material itself.

Red House is asymmetrical when viewed from the outside, and this because no unnecessary windows or elevations were added. Each room within Red House has the number of windows needed for its primary purpose. Morris’ master bedroom for example, has one of the smallest windows, but large windows were not necessary for a room that was used predominantly at nighttime.

The legs of the carved medieval refectory style table at Red House, designed by Philip Webb. This is not the original table- which was taken with the Morrises when they left in 1865- but would have been very similar to this Webb designed table.
The legs of the carved medieval refectory style table at Red House, designed by Philip Webb. This is not the original table- which was taken with the Morrises when they left in 1865- but would have been very similar.
The legs of the carved medieval refectory style table at Red House, designed by Philip Webb. This is not the original table- which was taken with the Morrises when they left in 1865- but would have been very similar to this Webb designed table.

Within the house the furnishings and decoration displayed and celebrated the manufacturing process and the skill of the craftsmen. The dining table at Red House is a good example of celebrating simple, utiltarian design, that instead of being covered with a tablecloth, was left and used in its uncovered state.

Handcraft, as opposed to machine made, furnishings were celebrated, with Morris hoping that this would inspire and sustain cottage industries, where working class craftsmen could produce works of art. The first Arts and Crafts Society, established in 1887, set this idea out in its mission statement, the aims were to ignore “...the distinction between Fine and Decorative art...” and to allow the “...worker to earn the title of artist.”

It is clear to see how these more socialist and democratic ideals, appealed to an American audience, where the movement spread and remained popular into the early decades of the twentieth century.

Red House Garden
The gardens at Red House, Bexleyheath
Red House Garden

Arts and Crafts Gardens

The Arts and Crafts Movement in garden design followed the same principles as that within the home. Arts and Crafts gardens tend to be smaller and more intimate spaces, that link with the house. Planting was selected to compliment the buildings and the colour palette tended towards soothing schemes. Instead of exotic and foreign plants that had been fashionable for the first half of the nineteenth century, garden designers favoured traditional and native grown species.

Arts and Crafts gardens took inspiration from medieval and tudor gardens, with small garden “rooms” being neatly laid out. It was typical for features such as dovecotes etc. to be included within these spaces, creating links with the houses that they belonged to. Red Houses’ original garden scheme was an even less formal interpretation of these ideas and is therefore more a Pre-Raphaelite garden rather than an Arts and Craft one, making it even more unique.