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The artistic history of Red House

An image of the imposing red brick facade of Red House in London showing its north front with arched entrance way and windows surrounded by gardens
The north front of Red House in London | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

The only house designed, built, and lived in, by William Morris, pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement, Red House was the birthplace of this decorative style and a haven for the pre-Raphaelite artists. Explore more of the history of this extraordinary home and the key figures behind it.

William Morris commissions the house

In 1859, newly married William Morris commissioned his friend, the young architect Philip Webb, to build him a house. Morris and Webb designed Red House without unneccessary decoration, instead choosing to champion utility of design; this would become a princple of the Arts and Crafts movement.

The house was intended to be a family home, but Morris also envisioned it as a place where he and his circle of friends could live and work according to the ideals and aspirations that a shared love of medieval literature and art had created.

‘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…’.

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

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. The couple were given unusual wedding presents in the form of hand-painted furniture and wall murals in the style of the pre-Raphaelites, many of which are still there today.

Taking inspiration from medieval works as well as art and literature, Red House was decorated in bold, jewel-like tones and the walls hung with embroideries and pictures. Furnishings and decoration displayed and celebrated the manufacturing process and the skill of the craftsmen.

An image of the interior of the drawing room at Red House in London with double-height vaulted ceiling, very tall windows, a blue woven rug on the floor and imposing red brick fireplace
The drawing room at Red House in London | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Unable to find furniture to his taste in the shops of the time, Morris again commissioned his friend Philip Webb to design dressers, settles, tables and other pieces of furniture, all in a pared-back, Gothic style that complemented the romantic nature of the house.

Artistic experimentation and invention

Webb wasn’t the only artistic friend of the Morrises who helped with the decoration of the house. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal and Edward Burne-Jones all contributed 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.

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 the business grew successfully.

Plans to extend

The commute between Red House and the company’s headquarters in London was 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)

A multi-family dwelling

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.

A sad turn of events

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 the premature birth and death of her baby, Christopher.

Moving back to London

The Burne-Jones' withdrew from the plans to expand Red House, and Morris was compelled to move his family back to London. The Morris family left the house in 1865, and the house and garden then went through decorative changes that have left their mark.

A view of the garden at Red House in London set against the red brick walls of the house with a circular well at the centre roofed with red tiles in a conical shape
The well in the garden at Red House in London | © National Trust Images/Chris Davies

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 because ‘…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 Rossetti in 1871, and is buried in the nearby churchyard of St George’s Church.

The imposing red facade of the house at Red House in London with its well and high peaked roof surrounded by a luscious green garden full of plants and flowers

Discover more at Red House

Find out when Red House is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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The design of the garden at Red House was as important to William Morris as the house, and he believed they should work together in harmony. Through the years, some of the design has been lost but the garden has still blossomed.

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The Red House garden is a small oasis on the London-Kent border. With a variety of flowers and plants, reminiscent of William Morris’s time here, the house and garden work in harmony.

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Discover the unexpected inside Red House, the Arts and Crafts former home designed by William Morris. Expert guides will help you explore this fascinating place, but you must pre-book your visit.

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Red House's collections 

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Red House on the National Trust Collections website.