Through a large, creaking wooden door, one enters the red-brick time machine that the nineteenth-century artist Edward Burne-Jones once deemed “the beautifullest place on earth.” Red House, an L-shaped Victorian villa on the outskirts of London, was a Pre-Raphaelite artistic haven and the iconic residence of the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris. Commissioned by the newly married designer to build a new home for his family in 1859, Philip Webb constructed an asymmetrical, vernacular-inspired residence embodying the core principles that would later be distilled in the work of their firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. By 1897, the house Morris and his wife, Jane, occupied for just five years was historicized in the first published survey of Morris’s work as “having initiated…a new era in house-building.”
Despite the building’s structural imperfections (it was Webb’s first independent commission, and flaws in the house’s design left it bitterly cold in winter), Red House is today regarded as one of the most significant examples of Victorian architecture, an emblem of modern British decorative arts. It is perhaps ironic, then, that it more closely resembles a thirteenth-century residence than a nineteenth-century one. Its distinctive towering chimneys, pointed arches, and plot garden are all seemingly out-of-place and out-of-time details culled from Gothic aristocratic households and churches.
Subject to myriad interpretations over the last 150 years, Red House’s medieval features have been recognized as the enduring influence on many architectural developments. The residence has “been seen as significant for a remarkably wide range of movements: High Victorian Gothic, the Queen Anne revival, the domestic revival and the Arts and Crafts and the Modern Movement,” the architectural historian Nicholas Cooper enumerates. “However diverse these were themselves, their historians and critics all seem to have found something relevant in Webb and Red House.”
By the 1960s, however, scholars concluded that the structural plan of the residence may not have been as revolutionary as it was initially considered to be, writes Cooper. Looking more deeply into Morris and Webb’s sources reveals that their blueprints were heavily informed by existing buildings, including those designed by G. E. Street and William Butterfield. This discovery initiated a wide-ranging reappraisal of Red House that moved beyond its architectural originality to consider the political ambitions behind Morris’s embrace of the Gothic past. Though he did not openly embrace socialist ideals until later in life, he had long revered the communal living structures of the pre-capitalist Middle Ages, which led him to the burgeoning Medievalist movement.
Examining Red House not just as a building but as Morris’s “utopian thought-experiment,” Victorian Studies scholar Marcus Waithe identifies two key characteristics of Gothic influence that made the residence an ideal home for the young couple: bucolic privacy and a sense of welcoming. The first feature, which more broadly represented a departure from the modern economic system, is less palpable in the twenty-first century. Visitors today find Red House in the developed southeast London suburb of Bexleyheath, just minutes off a high street replete with kebab shops, tattoo parlors, and pizza joints. But in the nineteenth century, the property was an idyllic retreat hours from the city center—a rural Kent expanse that formed “a refuge from the commercially interconnected world beyond.”
A symbolic “apartness” was manifested in Red House in more ways than just its geographic seclusion. Redolent of medieval guilds, which they saw as the pinnacle of craftsmanship, the home’s largely custom furniture and interiors were sourced not from the increasingly mechanized market for house design but instead handcrafted by Morris and his friends. Beams and brick arches are unconcealed throughout; remnants of creative intervention within manual tasks—such as deliberately exposed saw marks and decorative bricklaying—suggest a separation from industrialization and alienated labor. This structural honesty, betraying a harmony between decoration and function, was Morris and Webb’s steadfast rebuttal to modern “ugliness.” Now found in the ground-floor gallery, two stained glass window inserts by Burne-Jones that deify “Love” and “Fate” seem to declare the house’s liberation from the external reign of capital.
At the heart of Red House, though, was a careful negotiation between “apartness” and “togetherness.” Unlike their Victorian counterparts, medieval aristocratic homes were inhabited not just by an immediate family but by a small community. This inclusive domestic structure may have been what Morris had in mind when he asked Webb to design an extension to the residence in 1864. Though the house’s unsuitable winter conditions prevented further construction, the proposed wing would have accommodated workshops and housed the family of his closest friend, Burne-Jones.
Further countering its sense of seclusion, Red House’s design and meticulously-created interiors are replete with details meant to foster sociality—even down to a pair of benches flanking the main door, ready to host a fatigued wayfarer. Relatively hospitable servants’ quarters, with a window to the garden and located on the same floor as the master bedroom, may have been a subtle repudiation of the hierarchical domestic arrangements that were conventional in the nineteenth century. Exemplifying Morris’s convivial vision, Burne-Jones’s mural in the drawing-room, The Wedding Procession of Sir Degrevaunt, portrays Morris and Jane as a medieval king and queen gregariously presiding before their community.
“Red House combines a dream of separatism with a medievalist offer of hospitality, of domestic fellowship,” Waithe writes. “It evokes Morris’s compromise between a desire to remain open to the stranger at the gate, and a wish to assert the alternative value of retreat.”
Despite the political ideals behind Red House, the reality of its execution—a middle-class man relying on Victorian England’s private property system to purchase a large villa far from the London smog—has less radical connotations. While Morris wished to withdraw from contemporary economic life, he partially selected the property because of its proximity to the newly extended North Kent Line, which provided direct rail access to the city. And while hospitability and fellowship were defining principles behind Red House, the hypothetical wayfarers never came to rest on Morris’s benches—virtually all of his guests were friends and associates of similar socioeconomic standing.
That is not to say that Red House is simply a Victorian bourgeois manor fancifully rendered in a Neo-Gothic style. Medievalism was less Morris’s practical solution to the problems of industrial capitalism than a philosophical one: an anachronistic lens through which to look at a world increasingly encroached upon by impersonality and greed.
“The structural characteristics of Red House evoke not only the ideals of its architect and owner,” Waithe writes, “but also the link between medievalism and embryonic socialism, between paternalism and equalitarian inclusiveness.”