Sunday 23 December 2018

Red House

For more years than I can count I have dreamed of visiting Red House. As a life long lover of William Morris and everything he stood for (Socialism, quality products, hand craftsmanship, well considered design, the aesthetic beauty of everyday objects, truth to and respect of nature, obsession with the Medieval ... the list goes on) Red House for me has always been some what of a Holy Grail.
Every time I've visited London and begin to think about what I can cram in Red House always comes to the front of my mind, looming large like some un-vanquished beast. And then I look at Bexleyheath and its awkward location and the logistics never quite seem to fit.

But this wasn't a trip to London, this was a trip to France and beyond, and with Bexleyheath only a short drive from the M25 to my logic it was 'on the way' (as too was Bodingham Castle apparently) and the perfect opportunity to finally make a pilgrimage to Morris's home. And so it was built into the mammoth road trip schedule.

Our arrival at Red House hadn't been quite what I was expecting. A winding, modern suburban housing estate with boring, cloned houses costing I shudder to think how much lining the narrow winding lanes which felt a million miles away from London (however the traffic on the main roads did not). Twisting and turning wondering where on earth it was as the satnav had not-so-helpfully announced we had arrived, yet it was nowhere to be seen. Then suddenly around a bend lofty trees loomed up from behind a high brick wall and a blue plaque, here we were! Red House at last.

To say the property is National Trust you would hardly know in all honesty. A little out building with a small gift shop in but none of the usual pomp and grandeur that generally greets you at most trust properties (though we have visited other exceptions). From outside the walls Red House is quite unassuming, hidden behind trees and garden walls, most people probably drive by without a second glance. However inside those walls, it feels like I've walked into Morris' personal paradise. The steeply pitched roof gives the house a dramatic, imposing presence, while the many different windows in lots of shapes and sizes soften it and give it a charming character. On first impression the house is simple, honest. Its not until you get around the back of the house you see its more complex side, with a much more cosy feeling as it comes around to hug the ornate well and envelope the garden. One thing you truly get a sense of at Red House is Morris's connection to nature. The beautiful gardens were as important to Morris as every other aspect of this home, and that truly shows.

Inside the building had the echoes of some great medieval hall with beams, dark wood and bespoke gothic furniture in most rooms. But it was not as Morris intended it. White washed walls and Morris wallpaper Red House has been painfully sanitized over the years. Beautiful murals painted over, colour schemes whited out, stained glass sold, its true artistic intention and creation, lost. Colour swatches in the rooms tell you the original schemes Morris used. Deep reds, ocre, dark green, all those beautiful Medieval colours he so loved and we see today immortalised in illuminated manuscripts. Gone. The house was a living work of art and what he and Jane achieved there in 5 short years is incredible. So why isn't it being restored?

I asked volunteers why original schemes had not been reintroduced, or more original features had not been uncovered as for me the sorry state of the inside compared to what it could and should be was heart breaking and if I'm honest, a little distressing. Many were flippant, one telling me there were beautiful artworks on the doors, but she preferred the teal blue they were now painted and hoped they would stay that way. I wanted to tell her that wasn't her decision to make, this was Morris's dream and should reflect his vision, not hers, surely that's what we're saving this gem for, in tribute to his memory and genius? But, I wound my neck in and held my tongue. Other staff said they didn't have enough funding to carry out the costly work involved, painstaking work I know, but worthwhile surely? And I was also told of some urgent structural problems which needed to be addressed but for whatever reason hadn't been yet.

Its frustrating to see the house which was Morris' vision a shadow of its former self. But its easy to understand how this happens when an organisation as large as the National Trust has guardianship of a building. Over the past years we've been to so many of their properties, and what they do to safe guard and protect our heritage is nothing short of incredible. But when you visit Red House and are one of perhaps a dozen people in the entire grounds, you can see that compared to a property such as Nostell Priory, which on the day we visited there were literally thousands of people, and we were told on our tour how many tens of thousands of pounds they paid to reupholster a single sofa in one room of the Priory because it was looking a bit past it, you realise Red House is sadly a little fish in a big pond. And not the big bucks money spinning tourist attraction which some of their buildings are.

To have finally made it to Red House was a double edged sword. With so much joy to finally see this unique home, and yet sadness and frustration at wanting it to truly reflect Morris still. I hope that when the time comes when I have chance to visit again more of the intricate work of Morris will have been uncovered for future generations to treasure and protect.

Next to complete on my Morris pilgrimages is Kelmscott Manor. Perhaps one for 2019 ...