More a poem than a house
reveals a remarkable discovery: the earliest known photographs of William Morris’s Red House. They show it in the 1890s, when it was lived in by Charles Holme and his family.
Tuesday, 7th August 2007
In 1862, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote, ‘I wish you could see the house that Morris has built for himself in Kent. It is a most noble work in every way, and more a poem than a house…but an admirable place to live in too.’Commissioned by William Morris when he was in his mid-twenties and designed by his close friend Philip Webb, Red House, Bexleyheath, was the only house Morris was to build, and Webb’s first independent architectural commission. It was of critical importance in the development of their careers and the establishment of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Morris lived at Red House for only five years, but he had ambitious schemes for the decoration and furnishing of his ‘palace of art’, which he intended to be the ideal home for his growing family and many friends. He left the house in 1865, beset by ill-health and weary of the long commute into London to manage ‘the Firm’. Although no detailed account of the house was published in Morris and Webb’s lifetimes, its decoration and garden layout influenced not only their contemporaries but also successive generations of ‘art workers’ and owners of Red House.
However, our understanding of the place and how it has changed over the past 150 years is limited. On acquiring Red House, in January 2003, the National Trust undertook research on both the fabric of the house and its garden and the history of its owners and occupants, in support of a conservation plan and presentation strategy.
This research has confirmed how few documents pertaining to Morris’s occupation have survived. With the exception of the 1859 contract drawings prepared by Webb, there is a complete lack of visual evidence for the appearance of the house and garden from this period. This has in part been remedied with evidence garnered from recent archaeological investigations, paint analysis of the internal decorative schemes, and historical examination of the garden. Research into the owners who came after Morris has also produced surprising material and one particularly important discovery, a photograph album from the 1890s.These are the earliest known surviving photographs of Red House and the majority are published here for the first time. As well as being a remarkable record of the house in the late 19th century, they give an insight into Morris’s decorative schemes.
The album belonged to Charles Holme, who in September 1889 moved into Red House with his wife, Clara, and four children (Figs. 1 and 2). The intervening owners between Morris and Holme were James Arnold Heathcote (1866-77), a retired commander from the Indian navy, turned banker, and Edmund Charlesworth (1877-89), a stockbroker. It is not known whether these men were admirers of Morris’s work but throughout their occupation they respected much of the decoration and internal fittings Morris had left behind. These included such built-in pieces of furniture as the settles in the hall and drawing room and, in the Heathcotes’ case, five chairs that Morris is believed to have relinquished in exchange for the Prioress’s Tale wardrobe, which had been given to him and his wife, Jane, as a wedding present by the Burne-Joneses.In contrast, Holme was keenly aware of Red House’s history and is thought to have bought it because of its associations and its growing reputation. The purchase may also be viewed as a highly covetable addition to his growing collection of works of art.
Holme is recorded in the 1891 census as a retired East-India merchant. However, this description belies his diverse career and many interests.Born in 1848 in Derby, where his father owned a silk mill, by the age of 20 he was working as his father’s agent in Bradford. His life was radically altered by a chance meeting with the oriental traveller Robert Barkley Shaw, whom he heard lecture at the Bradford Chamber of Commerce in 1873. Shaw was keen to promote trading ventures in Turkestan (western China), and in 1876 Holme established a trade network there. Holme was trading principally in rugs but went on to develop business interests in India, China and Japan, importing furniture, wallpapers, pictures and ceramics.
After moving to London in 1879, Holme became great friends with Arthur Lasenby Liberty and set up in business with Christopher Dresser, with whom he traded in Japanese and Indian goods as ‘Dresser & Holme’ on Farringdon Road and undertook a commission to decorate a room in India. He is said to have been ‘profoundly struck by the perfection of Japanese craftsmanship’ and dedicated himself to drawing it to the attention of the west.In 1888-89, he made an extensive tour of Japan and the Far East with Mr and Mrs Liberty and the painter Alfred East, returning to buy Red House in September 1889 for £2,900. It was his much-loved home for 13 years and the setting for his ever expanding collections of objets d’art, furniture and pictures.
We know that Morris decorated the walls and ceilings of Red House with strong colours and polychromatic patterns and furnished it with embroidered hangings, pictures by his friends and other contemporary artists – including Arthur Hughes’s April Love (Tate) – and hand-crafted furniture that was medieval in spirit. Holme appears to have lived happily with much of the surviving Morris decoration while also clearly expressing his own distinct aesthetic by introducing fashionable wallpapers and grained finishes to the woodwork.
In several instances, the photographs reveal new evidence about the changes to the decoration since Morris’s time. The views of the first-floor drawing room, the principal reception room in Holme’s day as it was in Morris’s (Figs. 6 and 7), show that stencilled decoration, or possibly wallpaper, has been introduced above Burne-Jones’s murals, panelling added beneath them and battens attached to the ceiling. Recent paint analysis has revealed evidence of Morris’s decorative scheme for the ceiling – bands of floral and geometric motifs in deep reds and browns on a cream ground – surviving beneath the battens and layers of paint.The battens and panelling give the room a more overtly neo-baronial feel, which may perhaps have been suggested by the murals’ medieval subject.
Holme’s interiors have an eclectic quality, which reflect his various passions (Figs. 3 and 5). There is a layered, cluttered feel to the spaces – perhaps partly also a result of the photographer arranging the furniture – that is arguably at odds with Morris’s taste (Figs. 9 and 10). However, Holme was clearly influenced by Morris and respectful of his predecessor’s achievements. Like Morris, he was a committed advocate of good modern design and craftsmanship and in 1893 he founded (and later edited) The Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Arts, which championed new artists and designers and became the leading art journal of the period.Holme was committed to raising the status of architecture and the applied arts and rejected the established view that they were intrinsically inferior to the fine arts. Holme was also a founding member of the Japan Society in 1891 and a member of the Sette of Odd Volumes, a dining club for bibliophiles. Both societies had distinguished memberships, including poets, publishers and artists, most of whom were friends of Holme, contributors to The Studio and visitors to Red House.
Many of their names are etched on the glazed screen in the hall (Fig. 4). This screen assumed the role of a visitors’ book during Holme’s ownership. Separating the entrance hall from the passage to the Pilgrim’s Rest porch, it provides much needed draught-proofing. Webb’s contract drawings do not show it and its Aesthetic Movement character suggests Holme’s period of residency. Certainly it was erected by 1890, when the first dated signature was engraved on its glass. The roll-call of names includes M.H. Baillie Scott (architect), A.L. Baldry (artist and critic), Wilfrid Ball (artist), Robert Anning Bell (artist), Onslow Ford (sculptor), Alfred East (artist), John Lane (publisher), Richard le Gallienne (poet and essayist), Liberty, E.F. Strange (Keeper of Woodwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum), C.H. Townsend (architect) and Gleeson White (the original editor of The Studio). Holme’s entertainment of these friends has echoes of Morris’s hospitality at Red House in the 1860s.
Holme placed Red House on the market at the end of 1902. He sold it to the businessman Henry Muff, the father of the architect Edward Maufe. A talented amateur artist and occasional correspondent of John Ruskin, Muff would have been sympathetic to the house’s history. Holme left because he was uncomfortable with the increasingly suburban setting of the house and, like Morris, bemoaned the rapid expansion of housing that threatened once-rural places. He moved to Upton Grey House in Hampshire and also owned the manor house which he employed Ernest Newton to re-model, whilst Gertrude Jekyll designed its garden. He lived at Upton Grey until his death in 1923.
Tessa Wild is Curator of the Thames & Solent region of the National Trust, with responsibility for Red House.
LATEST NEWS & COMMMENT
Brussels plays host to a trio of outstanding fairs at the Place du Grand Sablon in early June, and the ever popular Carré Rive Gauche – now in its 36th year – returns to the Left Bank in Paris.
The work of John Nash has often been overshadowed by that of his contemporary, John Soane. But his pragmatism, as well as his experiments with the picturesque, make him one of the most significant of all British architects.
Apollo is published in London, one of the world’s great art capitals and home to extraordinary, thrilling exhibitions such as last year’s ‘Bronze’ at the Royal Academy