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‘The description of William Morris as “a master” reveals a rigid and overly literal idea of how Red House should be viewed today’

Red House

Building conservation can be about preserving a way of life

In August 2013, with great pomp, the National Trust announced that it had uncovered a wall of murals behind a wardrobe at Red House (1859), William Morris’s first home designed by Philip Webb in Kent. The Biblically-themed figures, believed to be the work of Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, Ford Madox Brown and Morris, were declared a find of international importance.

Major finds are exciting, especially when they surface in unexpected places like car parks and wardrobes. But reporters quickly slotted the story into a well-worn narrative groove: Red House was once a masterpiece, but a ‘string of private owners’ had treated it cavalierly, so most of its treasures were ‘lost’ or covered over. (‘Basically, every white surface in the house is suspect …’ said its manager.) Happily, the Trust is setting things to rightsand, with conservation, the authentic Red House will emerge again.

This narrative of neglect, loss and recovery is ungenerous. Red House had a number of sympathetic owners over its 144 years as a private home, who kept the house and grounds more or less intact. Most inhabited Red House longer than Morris, who stayed just five years before his dream of communal living soured. (The house has few original furnishings because when Morris left, he took with him what wasn’t built in or painted on.)

Of these sympathetic owners, two stand out. The first, Charles Holme, resided in Red House 1889-1903, and was the founder and editor of The Studio, the pre-eminent journal of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The second, Ted Hollamby, lived at Red House 1952-2003, and was a well-regarded modern architect, working first for the London County Council, and then for the London Borough of Lambeth. Both were cultural insiders who knew who Morris was and were conscious of Red House’s reputation. It was first hailed as groundbreaking architecture when Holme lived there. (The Studio-contributor Aymer Vallance claimed as far back as 1897 that Red House ushered in ‘a new era of housebuilding’.)

And Hollamby was a tireless Morris champion: the inaugural meeting of the William Morris Society was held at Red House in 1953 and, for the next 50 years, the house was opened for public events, lectures and tours. Despite the fact that Holme and Hollamby both appreciated Red House, they were not overly reverential in the way their families inhabited it. Both made decorative additions and built in new pieces. Both filled the rooms with furnishings that reflected their own tastes: imported Asian furnishings for Holme; Modernist for Hollamby. Hollamby, however, did introduce some Morris designs back into Red House: he replaced dark brown walls, a legacy of the Second World War, with Morris wallpapers or painted them white.

It is these additions that have now become most ‘suspect’. The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy noted that paint traces on the ceiling and walls of Morris’s bedroom suggest more Pre-Raphaelite work might exist, but they are hidden beneath ‘a particularly horrible 1960s version of Morris’s classic willow boughs design’. True, she absolves Hollamby of intentionally harming the house (‘the owner could never have guessed they were burying a genuine piece by the master …’), but her disapproval is clear.

The description of Morris as ‘a master’ whose traces alone are ‘genuine’ reveals a rigid and overly literal idea of how Red House should be viewed today. Most dispiritingly, it denies the collaborative nature of Morris’s own practice, which inspired its sympathetic owners more than the decor. Hollamby stated that his aim was to reanimate ‘the spirit’ of Red House, using it in ways that would foster conviviality, creativity and cooperation (as Holme also did).* Conservation was never only about preservation for him − it was about a way of life.

Hollamby’s expansive approach to conservation reminds us that there are different ways of valuing Red House and of telling its story. When the next Pre-Raphaelite find is revealed on the house’s walls, is it too much to hope that a different, richer narrative might emerge too? Less invested in ‘authenticity’ and acknowledging other inhabitants, other ways of seeing Morris, and animating Red House’s many lives once again.

* This ongoing research into previous owners was conducted with Charles Rice of Kingston University and included a long interview with Ted Hollamby in December 1999


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