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Red House – The Birth of Arth and Crafts

The nineteen-year-old Jane Burden agreed to marry Morris. His friend, the architect Philip Webb whose acquaintance Morris had made during his year at Street’s architectural firm, was commissioned to build Red House, their first married home. Red House is distinctly medieval in appearance. Moreover, the location of Red House was no coincidence. It was built along the path the pilgrims would have taken on their way to Canterbury, in Chaucher’s Canterbury Tales.

Red House defines the early Arts & Crafts style — with its steep roof, brock fireplaces, and ordinary materials such as stones and tiles. William and Jane were dissatisfied with the type and quality of the mass-produced furnishing they found in the shops. Morris and Burne-Jones had commissioned some pieces of furniture when they shared bachelor quarters in London, but Red House was largely unfurnished.

And now reader, look around this English room of yours, about which you have been proud so often, because the work of it was so good and strong, and the ornaments of it so finished. Examine again all those accurate mouldings, and perfect polishing, and unerring adjustments of the seasoned wood and tempered steel. Many a time you have exulted over them, and thought how great England was, because her slightest work was done so thoroughly.

Morris resolved to furnish Red House himself. He paid attention to every detail, designing and handpainting the tiles in the garden porch, the ‘Pilgrim’s Rest’. The furnishing and decoration of Red House became a usual weekend activity for the Morrises and their friends, Edward-Burne Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal, architect Philip Webb and others.

It was one evening after a dinner at Red House that the group of friends formed the partnership of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co., a business venture built on the rejection of machine-produced decorations in favor of hand-craftsmanship. The Firm initially focused on stained glass and Firm windows are still common in England’s 19th century churches. The ‘Morris Chair’, designed by Philip Webb, is still available by catalog and online. Morris wallpaper and textile patterns are still sold in high-end shops.

But to smother their soul with them, to blight and hew into rotting pollars the suckling branches of their human intelligence, to make the flesh and skin which, after the worm’s work on it, is to see God, into leathern thongs to yoke machinery with, — this is to be slavemasters indeed… (Ruskin, Nature of the Gothic)

The defining characteristics of English Arts and Crafts are a return general simplicity of design and hand decoration of items with images and symbols that have a meaning for the user. For Morris, these included medieval themes and there is indeed a link to the ethos of the medieval artisan guilds, but as his interests grew, so did the subject matter. Persian designs and themes, the influence of old Iceland tapestries on his designs, drawing on the beauty of the natural surroundings and his personal history growing up as a child riding his pony through Epping Forest, mythic and fairy tale themes — all of these were drawn into the circle of Arts and Crafts subjects.