Beneath the floorboards
reveals a lost letter from Philip Webb to William Morris.
Tuesday, 7th August 2007
Who doesn’t dream of finding something interesting under the floorboards? The reality is usually rather more prosaic: builder’s rubble. But the older the building, the better your chances. For there is a long tradition of owners deliberately concealing worn-out shoes and other garments within the fabric of their homes, apparently to keep evil spirits at bay.It is more unusual to find letters concealed in this way, although when builders took up the floorboards at The Vyne in Hampshire in 1996-98, they discovered dozens. During World War II, the house had taken in an evacuated school, and the children ‘posted’ letters from their parents between the floorboards after they had read them.
The letter transcribed and reproduced here was discovered by Anna McEvoy under the floor of the guest bedroom at Red House during recent re-servicing work.Dated 18 November 1864, it was written by Philip Webb to William Morris. They were the closest of friends, but letters between them from this period are extremely rare. There are no letters from Morris to Webb in 1864 and until now, Webb’s earliest known letter to Morris in public hands dated from 1868. This is doubly unfortunate, because not only was Webb a key figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, but he was also often more forthcoming on paper than in person.
The letter is brief, but revealing: beneath Webb’s terse words of encouragement lies a story of personal and professional crisis in the Morris circle. The carefree early years at Red House were over. Morris’s marriage and his decorating business, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, were both in difficulties. During September 1864 the Morrises and the Burne-Joneses had enjoyed a happy family holiday in Sussex with Charles Faulkner and his sisters, but in the final days the Burne-Joneses’ son Philip had caught scarlet fever. He passed the illness on to his mother, who was pregnant. On 28 October she gave birth prematurely to a son, Christopher. For a time, her life was in danger, but she recovered (which may account for the optimistic tone of Webb’s comment about Burne-Jones). Alas, however, the baby died three days after this letter was written, on 21 November.
Morris had been planning to build a Webb-designed extension to Red House as a home for the Burne-Joneses and as premises for the Firm. Shattered by this tragedy, Burne-Jones backed out, preferring to settle his family in the more fashionable artists’ quarter of Kensington. As a result, Morris decided to sell Red House and return to London the following year. If Christopher had lived, perhaps Burne-Jones might have agreed to join Morris at Red House. As Georgiana reflected many years later, ‘how different all our lives would have gone if this scheme had been carried out’.
The letter also highlights how important Webb was in keeping the Firm afloat at a time when Morris was stricken by rheumatic fever, and Burne-Jones by family crisis. Although Webb’s independent architectural career was starting to flourish, he still found time to keep the Firm’s more impatient customers at bay, and to ensure that such important commissions as the stained glass for All Saints, Cambridge were honoured. Webb’s biographer, Sheila Kirk, has remarked that he ‘felt keenly any troubles that affected his friends’. It is characteristic of Webb’s practical generosity that he waived his fee for his designs for the Firm’s decoration of St Philip’s, Bethnal Green (mentioned in the letter).
How did the letter come to rest beneath the Red House floorboards? Probably it was simple accident, but one can’t help wondering whether it was not deliberately concealed by Morris, who must have found its blithe optimism unbearably poignant in the aftermath of Christopher Burne-Jones’s death.
Oliver Garnett is the author of the National Trust guidebooks to Red House and Standen.
1, Raymond Buildings, Gray’s InnLondon, Nov. 18 1864
My dear Morris
I saw Brown the other day upon his return from Red house & Ned read Janie’s letter to me this afternoon, so I just know something of you. I can only hope that you are not in great pain – and that you manage to keep up your spirits.
I must say that Ned’s case has been a striking example of things all coming round after a depth of trouble, and things are never quite so bad as they look.
Charlie Faulkner comes up to town again tomorrow. So Campfield and I manage with him to keep things going pretty smoothly at the shop – and it will do some of your brutes of customers good to wait a bit
Some of the Cambridge glass goes off tonight which has stopped Bodley’s mouth.
I’ve set them going at S. Philip’s Bethnal Green with a pattern for the roof of chancel and I am now going to give them wall & dado patterns for the same.
I am rather pushed in a corner just now with work as I was away in Norfolk for 2 days and a night.
Best love to you both
Tessa Wild is Curator of the Thames & Solent region of the National Trust, with responsibility for Red House.
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