Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Visit to Red House, Home of William Morris and Mass at Ealing Abbey

Saturday, October 22, 2016
Bexleyheath, Kent and London

    A visit to Red House, famed home of William Morris in Bexleyheath, Kent, was long overdue. Why do I feel such an obsession with Morris and his Mates? Could it be their obsession with Medieval times and the past in general based on their prodigious love for history that I share? Could it be their association with Exeter College, Oxford? Could it be that I simply love the style they, as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, made their own? I remain puzzled. What I do know is that I have always been intrigued by the group and since homes and museums related to Morris outweigh those relating to the others, I have, over the years, visited Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire and, more recently, the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow in London. The more I learn about Morris, the more fascinated I become by his life and work. So, with colder days closing in on us, I decided that it was now or never. I had to visit The Red House (as it is known) before it got too cold to enjoy outdoor excursions. For, as in the case of most museum-houses, the gardens are an integral part of the house and must be visited in tandem with them.

    I awoke at 6.00 am, did a blog post, looked at fares online for my December  travels to India, consulted the Transport for London and National Trust website for my trip to Red House, ate my breakfast (2 toasted croissants with a variety of spreads and coffee), made myself a sandwich for lunch and left my flat at 8.45 am for the journey to Kent. I took the Central Line Tube to Oxford Street and changed to the Victoria Line to get to Victoria as experience has taught me that the District Line which goes directly from Ealing to Victoria creeps and crawls its way there and takes forever--whereas trains on the Central Line simply fly.

      I arrived at Victoria at 9. 15, stood in line to buy a ticket and was informed that my Oyster Card would be the cheapest way to get there. There was a train leaving in 5 minutes, so off I went on it to Bexleyheath. It also crept and crawled its way through Eastern London and into Kent, but eventually we arrived there. TFL website had informed me about the B12 bus just outside the station (which would save me a walk of an additional 15 minutes--and was free with my Travelcard)--so I caught it, and then, at the bus stop, when I asked a kindly gentleman for directions, he happened to live right besides the house and got into companionable chatter with me as we walked there together. It took me exactly an hour and 45 minutes from door to door to get there by public transport. Not bad at all as the journey was very pleasant throughout.

Visiting Red House:
     Red House is run by the National Trust who acquired it in 2003. It was the home in which William Morris lived from 1860 till 1865 (intriguingly, the exact years that the Civil War was being fought in America! It does put things in perspective!) It is a grand, rambling home made entirely of red bricks (hence the name) and was designed by Phillip Webb (the least known of the Pre-Raphaelites) and a lifelong friend of Morris who instructed him to design a house entirely "Medieval in spirit". Webb complied magnificently. It was built at a cost of 4000 pounds--a huge amount of money for a middle class man to have spent, in those days--and, interestingly, until today, it has never sold for more than that amount! Why? Well, because it is not a grand house, nor even a very usable one and is not in a fashionable town. Indeed, it is really in the midst of nowhere--which explains why no one with real money ever actually wants to live there! Still, for all those downsides, it is beautifully preserved for us, Pre-Raphaelite devotees, and so, there I was at a little before 11.00 am even before the Trust staff had arrived to take their posts. I bought a ticket for 7.20 pounds and was joined by two gentlemen to take the tour given by Jack, who was one of the best tour guides I have ever had. His knowledge was prodigious, his passion for his subject was obvious and his delivery of the material he knew was flawless. Would that all tour guides were this good!

So Who was William Morris?
     To appreciate the nuances of this home, you need to know a bit about William Morris. He was born in the mid-19th century in Essex into a middle-class family. His father who owned copper mines in Devon, died when he was 13 leaving behind 9 children (Morris was the eldest) and an inheritance of shares in the mines (to which Morris would become entitled when he turned 21). His mother moved the family to the house at Walthamstow (a matter of downsizing!) when he was 13 and he lived his crucial teenage years in this home.

At 18, he left home for Exeter College, Oxford, where his tutor was Dante Gabriel Rossetti and he made friends with one Ned Jones who became the celebrated artist Edward Burne-Jones. The three of them gravitated to each other through their love of history and the past. And the reason for this obsession with the past? Well, they were not happy at the way the Industrial Revolution was changing traditional English lifestyles and divorcing people from Nature--which they adored. Hence, in searching through the past, they realized that the Middle Ages were the time when civilization lived as far away from technology as was possible and was closest to Nature. They began to study that era and became obsessed with knights and knighthood mainly through the works of Thomas Malory known as Morte d'Arthur. For the rest of their lives, their work would reflect their affinity with the spirit of the Middle Ages. They joined the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in Oxford. During their time at Oxford, they often went to France to seek out medieval castles and manors and brought this element into their work. They intended to remain locked in a communal artistic spirit for the rest of their lives as collaborators.  This intention remained a reality until the arrival of Jane Burden on the scene.

     Jane Burden was a working class woman who lived in Oxford. Rossetti spotted her, one day, at a play in Oxford and was struck my her face. She had features that seemed perfect for the medieval spirit he wished to evoke in his paintings. He requested her father (significant coins must have changed hands) to permit her to pose for him. Her father agreed and Jane entered the fray. Morris was introduced to her and fell completely and madly in love with her. When Rossetti went off on a trip, Morris seized the opportunity to propose to her. She accepted--not because she was also in love with him but because she saw it as the only way that she could enter the middle class. A year later, Morris turned 21, came into his inheritance and the couple were married in Oxford. Webb, whom Morris had just met, was asked to design the couple a house. They chose two acres in Kent to do so--it was all farmland then surrounded by a few oast houses. Morris did not pay too much for the land and, in no time, construction began. Morris was a nightmare of a boss and Webb tolerated his micromanagement of the project only because they were close friends. Even today, some vast rooms in the house appear to have the dimensions of medieval castles.

     Morris and Jane lived in Red house for 5 years and had their two daughters there--Jenny and May. The home was always filled with friends and their families as the Morrises were generous hosts and loved to find their rooms filled. At weekends, at a time when there were no trains to Bexleyheath, friends came from London on a train to nearby Abbotswood from where their hosts would send a horse-drawn cart for them to get to Red House.

     Together, the friends set to decorating the house--the men worked on such things as the furniture and the painting, the women worked on the embroidery (Jane was a fine embroiderer and much of her work survives). Burne-Jones married Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal who was an artist in her own right. Their idea was to join the Morrises to live at Red House for which a separate wing was to be constructed (Webb was to work on its design too). Sadly, Lizzie's son died in childbirth, she became addicted to laudanum as she tried to fight depression and died of an overdose. She is buried in Highgate Cemetery. The plans, therefore, for the Rossettis to join the Morrises at Red House never materialized. Instead, the Morrises decided to leave Red House and move to the countryside nearer Oxford. They bought Kelmscott Manor and set about making it their own. More time was spent paintings and embroidering in an attempt to re-create the spirit of Red House in their new home.

Unfortunately, by this time, the Morris marriage had turned sour and Rossetti seemed to take it upon himself to be responsible for Jane's happiness. He got involved romantically with her--a matter that shattered the Morris-Rossetti friendship. They came to an understanding that Rossetti and Jane would live in Kelmscott Manor with all their children while Morris went off to Iceland to work. When he recovered from his loss, he returned to England to found Morris & Co. which became his life's contribution to the world of art and creativity as well as Kelmscott Press which led to the publication of the work of their circle of friends--works in which they all collaborated as poets, writers, artists, illustrators and publishers. Kelmscott Manor is also a popular destination for lovers of Morris and his ilk and I have visited it, a few years ago, with much delight.

Exploring Red House:   
     Jack, our tour guide, was the one who provided all the above information--swiftly but comprehensively, he gave us a very good idea of how and why the house came to be built in this part of the country. We were based in the garden while he spoke--this gave us a good view of the well (the only source of water in Morris' day) with its beautiful wooden canopy (also designed by Webb). The gardens were built in untidy beds--as untidy as one finds Nature to be. There are loads of herbs and lots of fruit trees (especially apples). Morris always lived by the adage: Have nothing in your home that you do not believe to be either beautiful or useful. In these days when we are all trying madly to control our clutter, it is a very good adage to live by.

Jack then led us to the main door (medieval in spirit also with its Gothic style arch and heavy iron latches) and into the entrance hall--usually dark, narrow, dingy spaces in the Victorian Age. Morris wasn't having any of it. He ensured that Webb provided him with a vast space, a fireplace (so that guests would feel warmed immediately) and a place to sit and stash one's gloves, hats, scarf, etc. (there is a storage cabinet-cum-bench specifically designed for this purpose.

     As we traversed the rooms, we were introduced to more strange and unusual pieces of large furniture designed by Morris who soon discovered that his talents lay more with design than with art. Although he did paint, he increasingly left most of his painting projects to his friends while he focused on such things as stained glass windows and furniture, wall paper, textile designs and the like. The paintings that still survive in the house (such as on the hall ceiling and in the dining room) were done in collaboration with his friends. In fact, in the hall, Morris made sure the scaffolding was still kept in place when construction ended in order to reach it.  No Michaelangeloesque lying on their backs while they completed it!

In other rooms, there are whole Marriage Scenes in which the friends feature--Jane's unusual lips make her easily discernible in almost every such painting. There are roses too, and tulips, and although some walls and pieces of furniture were painted over by subsequent owners of the house, conservation efforts by the Trust are slowly but surely bringing these panels to light. One of them, in what was the Morris master bedroom, was only very recently unearthed, and it has proven to be a significant art treasure as the hands of almost all of these friends and their wives is evident in it--including a portrait of Rachel by Siddal.

The guest bedrooms are smaller but no less interesting. Some parts of the house are not open to visitors and while Jack made mention of a kitchen staff and servants, we were not given access to it. We saw some ceramic tiles to which Morris turned his hand but they were failures as he had yet to master the technique involved in painting and firing to get permanent glazes.

Finally, the tour ended in a small museum which contains many of the personal possessions of Webb--the possessions of the others are scattered among the other museums and houses that are dedicated to their work. There is Webb's portmanteau, his artist's palette and set of water colors, his snuff boxes, etc, (including one that belonged to Morris and that was presented to him by Jane after Morris died).
     As an afterthought, Jack did let us know that May Morris, his younger daughter, tried hard to keep the house from falling out of the family, but eventually it was bought by someone not related to the group. It was Tim Hollandby and his wife, who owned it for over 50 years, who were most conscious of preserving the Morris heritage inside, They did their best to preserve the original decoration of the house, but as time went by, they did carefully board up the ceiling in one room and painted it white. The Trust has been slowly working to unearth these hidden treasures--thankfully, they did not paint over them.

     I found the entire tour fascinating. Not only did a learn a lot more about William Morris than I had known, but to walk in the rooms that they once did, to be introduced to the carousing and celebration that was part and parcel of this home in happier times, was deeply moving. I am so glad I did finally get to see lovely Red House.
     I spent some time in the shop and ate my sandwich in the café with a hot chocolate because reversing my journey and getting back to London and my home by 2. 45 pm.

Spending the Evening at Home:
     I had a cup of tea and a snack upon my return and then set to work to book tickets through for my travels in Sicily next month. At the end of two hours, I had them all done (Thank Heavens!) and also Facetimed with Llew for a while. Then, because I will be out early tomorrow morning to see Eltham Palace (which is so easily accessible on the same train line), I decided to find out what time the Saturday evening Mass would be at Ealing Abbey. When I discovered that it was at 6.00am, I got dressed hastily and made my way to the church.

Mass at Ealing Abbey:   
      Less than 10 minutes walk from my home, Ealing Abbey was crowded with Catholic parishioners when I arrived there. It was a lovely Mass, mostly in English with some sung bits in Latin. It was over in less than an hour as I found my way home in time for dinner. I had part of the lasagne from Carluccio's that I had frozen with a salad made with lettuce, corn and peas, blue cheese and nuts in a yogurt dressing I created with mustard, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and, get this, lemon curd! It was amazingly good! As I ate, I watched Rosemary and Thyme and when I felt simply too tired to go on, I ate some chocolate ice-cream, Face timed again with Llew and went straight to bed.
    Until tomorrow, cheerio...


1 comment:

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Rochelle - so pleased you got out to the Red House - so you could tell us about it! and then the relationships of Morris, Jane, Rossetti and all ... and Kelmscott - both on my 'to visit list'. William Morris was hugely influential and still is ...

I look forward to visiting sometime ... but I see Philip Webb also designed Standen, north Sussex, to which I've been intending to go for ages ...

Thanks so much for writing this up - your posts always open so many doors and thoughts ... cheers Hilary