When I was a teenager I discovered The Pre-Raphaelites and was smitten. The jewel-like colours in their paintings, the depiction of myths and legends, those never-ending tresses falling down the backs of maiden’s fabulous clothes, all were a feast for a yearning fourteen year old to gobble up. And gobble I did! I had a whale of a time going all medieval within the confines of suburbia and I love the paintings still, though I am not uncritical of the role bestowed upon women in quite a lot of them. Still, I am grateful for what else they led me to and in particular to the genius of William Morris and the glorious Arts and Crafts movement. Imagine then the absolute wonder of wonders to discover that he’d lived literally a fifteen minute walk away from me. I passed his home frequently after that but could only see the boundary wall, all of it too tall for me to peer over for a glimpse of that extraordinary house – Red House. My frustration was palpable. I could run my fingers along those gloriously ruddy red bricks, feel the history but couldn’t see a thing. However, a brief but tantalising view from a coach window gave me one unexpected glimpse over that wall on a school trip and I loved what I saw. But, that was the closest I got. I treasured the memory topping it up over the years by looking at photographs in books I collected. A private house, at that time, there was no way I was going to get any further ... until last summer.
Decades after I had grown and moved away from the area I returned and walked straight through the front gate, up the drive and into the house by a side entrance. It was bliss. Now owned by the National Trust, Red House is open to the public and undergoing conservation work which has already revealed previously unknown paintings. However well you think you know somewhere from pictures, architectural drawings, photographs, nothing prepares you for the real thing. It’s a three-dimensional, sensual experience inhabiting the space, looking out through the windows, just being there. I could feel my fourteen year old self fizzing with excitement as I ran my hand along the bannister rail, no longer the outsider looking in.
The house is fairly sparsely furnished – most of the furnishings long dispersed– but gradually piece by piece, a chair here a table there is being added to the collection and other household objects designed by Philip Webb (the architect), Morris, and their contemporaries, acquired and displayed. But despite its lack of items the house still feels very much a home and one I would be very happy to live in I can tell you! Although Morris and his family only actually lived here themselves for a short time it does, of course, still feel very much their place and much of that is thanks to the wonderful Ted and Doris Hollamby who lived here for over forty years caring for the place as best they could while making it work as a home for themselves and their family. How wonderful that a young architect of the fifties, along with his fellow architect Dick Toms, should see the worth of this place and buy it. Who knows what might have happened if they hadn’t?
There is so much to enjoy here: the bull’s-eye windows, Burne-Jones stained glass, brick arches, lovely garden but above all the atmosphere. It sets off the imagination and you can almost hear Morris busying himself about the place with plans and ideas or playing with ‘the littles’ – his young daughters Jenny and May. It is a place that inspires and creates the necessary physical, mental and emotional space for creative minds to fly. (I have visited one of Philip Webb’s other houses: Standen in East Sussex. It too is a joy.)
Morris has been a hero of mine for many years and the more I’ve learnt about him the more impressed with him I’ve become. If you think all he did was make fabric and wallpaper think again! A writer, conservator (he helped to inspire the birth of the National Trust), social reformer, designer, printer ... it’s an extraordinary list of achievements and yes, there are his exquisite fabric designs seen in a huge variety of guises all over the world still, more than a hundred and twenty years after his death.
Red House is a gem lovingly peopled by The Friends of Red House who act as guides and volunteers safe in the knowledge that their own contribution has helped to secure a safe future for this wonderful place.
If you ever visit South East London I highly recommend a visit, it’s a stone’s throw from Greenwich Park and the Maritime Museum and even nearer to the recently restored Danson House – a whole lot of other gems!