3. Red House
4. Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co
5. Later Years
Whereas William Morris was the predominant figure of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Philip Webb was just as part of it. Therefore, this essay shall focus on the architect and designer Philip Speakman Webb, on the ideas he followed and his contribution to the movement.
Philip Speakman Webb was born in 1831 into the family of an Oxford doctor. He visited the grammar school and started his professional education thereafter. In 1854 he started to work for Georg Edmund Street as chief clerk. G. E. Street was a Gothic Revivalist architect and very active in restoring cathedrals and churches, but he also built non-celestial buildings in the Gothic style.
In 1856 Philip Webb met William Morris, as the latter became Street’s pupil. Morris introduced him to the Pre-Raphaelite circle around the painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.
Webb was very interested in vernacular architecture and therefore toured northern England, Scotland and northern France. Among his friends was the British architect William Butterfield, ‘who is said to have started the High Victorian Gothic by building the All Saints church in Margaret Street, London’ (Kostof, 1985, p.637). ‘Furthermore, his ideas of combining natural colours freely, as well as the functional secular style in which he built cottages and schools, inspired Webb’ (Hutchinson Dictionary of Arts, 2006, p.701).
3. Red House
In 1859 Webb started to work independently. His first job was to build a house for his friend William Morris. The Red House is seen ‘as the first building incorporating the Arts and Crafts style completely, in the construction and within’ (Design Museum, 2006).
The designing process followed the ideas of Morris and Webb about domestic architecture and decoration. Those ideas were strongly influenced by the Industrial Revolution, the ensuing mass-production of cheap decorative art and the felt loss in taste. The ideal of pre-industrial craftsmanship, leading back to the architect A. W. N. Pugin and critic John Ruskin, was the driving force, as well as the appreciation of simplicity by both Webb and Morris.
1. (Clutton, 2010) – Red House, Bexleyheath, Kent, England, designed by Philip Webb for William Morris in 1859.
Although some sources mention Philip Webb as the sole designer of the Red House, Morris had notable influence during the designing process. The decoration within the Red House was partly Webb’s work. He designed among other things tables, chairs, cupboards and table glass.
Philip Webb combined domestic architecture with aspects of the Gothic style. He especially liked to use the effects of contrast in material and colour, as he did building the Red House. The interior was painted white and contrasted the red bricks on the outside, which gave the house its name. ‘Although his designs were very original, he always kept an eye on functionality and the local traditions’ (Britannica Online Encyclopaedia, 2010) [a].
4. Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co
Morris’ idea was to have a place where he could work surrounded by hand-made quality products, and his friends, who were helping to decorate and furnish the Red House. During that process the idea developed further and led into the foundation of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1961. The association included Philip Webb and the painters Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown. They produced stained glass, furniture, wallpaper, carpets and more. The firm collaborated with skilled craftsmen, who worked according to the painter’s designs.
Webb, unlike other architects, was also an excellent designer of small things. The ornamentation of the sideboard [Fig. 2] is an example of his abilities.
2. (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2008a) – Sideboard by Philip Webb.
Furthermore he designed tables and chairs. Philip Webb developed the Morris chair [Fig. 3] on the basis of a traditional design, which he found in a workshop. It had an adjustable back and was made from wood, in contrast to the iron-made American mechanical chairs. However, the chair was especially well received overseas. Attributed to Webb is also the Sussex chair [Fig. 4], which had a simple design that was based on early country design. It was available in various styles and colours and commercially very successful. Another example of simplicity is the refectory table [Fig. 5] designed by Webb.
3. (Geffrye Museum, 2000) – This armchair designed by Philip Webb has an adjustable back. It is known as the Morris chair.
4. (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2008d) – The Sussex chair, possibly designed by Webb, was based on early country design and commercially very successful.
5. (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2008e) - Refectory table designed by Philipp Webb.
Webb’s talent for the little things also appeared on the famous Trellis wallpaper [Fig. 6 & 7], where he drew the birds, whereas Morris designed the roses. For the firm Webb also designed glass and decorative accessories from embroidery to metal works.
6. (William Morris Gallery, 2008) – Design for the Trellis wallpaper with birds drawn by Webb and roses by Morris.
7. (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2008f) – Trellis wallpaper.
5. Later Years
Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co dissolved in 1875 and Webb continued independently, while Morris formed Morris & Co. Despite that, Webb provided Morris’ new firm with designs for furniture.
In 1877, Philip Webb and William Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. The society still exists and follows the founders’ aim to prevent old buildings from destructive restoration in order to preserve their authenticity by skilful reparations. Webb had big influence through the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, as he used to teach young architects on principles and methods of conservation.
Webb led his own practice until his retirement in 1899. Afterwards he spent time travelling and advising colleagues, who were interested in the Arts and Crafts Movement. He died in 1915.
Philip Speakman Webb was an important figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement, especially as an architect of country houses, but also as a designer of furniture and stained glass. He shared the ideas of William Morris, the ideal of craftsmanship and, later in his life, socialism. Their friendship and professional collaboration highlighted in the Red House. The Philip Webb Award, which was launched by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1993, underlines the lasting appreciation of his commitment and his impact until today.
In the acceptance of the fact, that no building is going to live forever, lies the power of the work done by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. I appreciate old constructions, which still radiate the atmosphere of the days, when they had been built. Old buildings are allowed to look old, because then, they offer something unique: a journey in time.
Simplicity is timeless and nice to the eyes. Good design can be enjoyed without any effort. I sense that Philip Webb knew that.
Britannica Online Encyclopaedia (2010) Arts and Crafts Movement. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/37281/Arts-and-Crafts-movement (Accessed: 3 February 2010).
Britannica Online Encyclopaedia (2010) Philip Speakman Webb. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/638504/Philip-Speakman-Webb (Accessed: 3 February 2010) [a].
Britannica Online Encyclopaedia (2010) Western Architecture. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/32952/Western-architecture/47391/National-and-regional-variations#ref=ref489437 (Accessed: 3 February 2010) [Subtitle: From the 19th to the Early 20th Century, Paragraph 10].
Clutton, N. (2010) Red House, Bexleyheath, Kent (now in Bexley), England, designed for William Morris by Philip Webb, 1859 [Online]. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/638504/Philip-Speakman-Webb (Accessed: 4 February 2010) [Image 3].
Craven, J. (2010) Philip Webb: Arts & Crafts Architect and Designer. Available at: http://architecture.about.com/od/greatarchitects/p/webb.htm (Accessed: 3 February 2010).
Design Museum (2006) Art and Craft Movement. Available at: http://designmuseum.org/design/art-and-craft-movement (Accessed: 6 February 2010).
Dictionary of Scottish Architects (2008) Philip Speakman Webb. Available at: http://www.scottisharchitects.org.uk/architect_full.php?id=201665 (Accessed: 3 February 2010).
Geffrye Museum (2000) Armchair with adjustable back, mahogany frame upholstered in wool flush [Online]. Available at: http://www.propascene.com/exhibithighlight/thehousebeautiful.htm (Accessed: 7 February 2010).
Henderson, P. P. (ed.) (2010) William Morris. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/392908/William-Morris (Accessed: 3 February 2010).
Hutchinson Dictionary of Arts (2006) [Online] Available at: http://www.ebrary.com (Accessed: 6 February 2010).
Janson, H. W. (1986) History of art. 3rd edn. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Kostof, S. (1985) A history of architecture. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Mackail, J. W. (1899) Life of William Morris. Ebrary [Online]. Available at: http://www.ebrary.com (Accessed: 6 February 2010).
Morris, W. (2009) The Manifesto. Available at: https://www.spab.org.uk/what-is-spab-/the-manifesto (Accessed: 7 February 2010) [Paragraph 7].
SPAB (2009) History of the SPAB. Available at: https://www.spab.org.uk/what-is-spab-/history-of-the-spab (Accessed: 7 February 2010).
SPAB (2009) Philip Webb Award. Available at: https://www.spab.org.uk/education-training/philip-webb-award (Accessed: 7 February 2010).
SPAB (2009) SPAB’s Purpose. Available at: https://www.spab.org.uk/what-is-spab-/spab-s-purpose (Accessed: 7 February 2010).
Tenner, E. (2004) Our Own Devices : How Technology Remakes Humanity. Ebrary [Online]. Available at: http://www.ebrary.com (Accessed: 7 February 2010).
Victoria and Albert Museum (2008) Refectory table by Philip Speakman Webb, England, 1865 – 1870. Museum no. W.45-1926 [Online]. Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/images/image/58265-popup.html (Accessed: 4 February 2010) [c].
Victoria and Albert Museum (2008) Sideboard by Philip Speakman Webb, England, 1861. Museum no. CIRC. 540-1963 [Online]. Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/images/image/58273-popup.html (Accessed: 4 February 2010) [a].
Victoria and Albert Museum (2008) Sussex armchair by Philip Speakman Webb (attrib.), England, 1870 – 1890. Museum no. CIRC. 288-1960 [Online]. Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/images/image/58266-popup.html (Accessed: 4 February 2010) [b].
Victoria and Albert Museum (2008) Trellis Wallpaper [Online]. Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/images/image/3759-popup.html (Accessed: 4 February 2010) [d].
Victoria and Albert Museum (2008) Victorian Furniture Styles: Arts & Crafts. Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/images/image/58265-popup.html (Accessed: 4 February 2010).
Victoria and Albert Museum (2008) Victorian Furniture Styles: Arts & Crafts. Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/images/image/58266-popup.html (Accessed: 4 February 2010).
William Morris Gallery (2008) William Morris and Philip Webb: design for Trellis wallpaper, 1862. Pencil and watercolour. [Online]. Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/images/image/3761-popup.html (Accessed: 4 February 2010).
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How red was Red House, the "palace of art" built at Bexleyheath in Kent for William Morris on his marriage? Contemporary accounts suggest that it was dazzling, the new orange-red brick glaring out in blatant contrast to the fawn-brown bricks and stucco of the cottages and houses in the neighbourhood.
To Morris the designer, red would have a special meaning as the red of the redbreast, the colour of the rose, the luscious scarlet of the strawberry, the refulgent crimson surcoats of the knights as they set off on their quest in the great Holy Grail tapestries. The glowing red of Red House represented William Morris's own crusade against the iniquities of the mid-Victorian age.
In his poems and his stories too the colour red would haunt him, sometimes a cruel streak, sometimes the glow of sweet midsummer. In "Golden Wings" Morris describes an ancient castle:
Many scarlet bricks there were
In its walls, and old grey stone;
Over which red apples shone
At the right time of the year.
This poem was published in 1858, the year before Red House was started. In the way messages pass from one poet to another WB Yeats saw these lines as the supreme expression of happiness when he first read them as a child.
Morris's building in its own day had passionate admirers. The poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti judged it "a real wonder of the age". In a phrase that marvellously catches its strange spirit he described it as "more a poem than a house".
Architecturally and in the way of life evolved there its resonance and meaning extend far beyond the functional. Red House still bears the imprint of entangled human lives and peculiarly intimate creative energies.
Its recent acquisition by the National Trust is eminently suitable for this was the burgeoning of art for democracy, for community endeavour. "What business have we with art at all unless all can share it?" Morris himself asked.
William Morris was only 25 when ideas for his building first developed. He and two friends were on a boat trip down the Seine. Preliminary sketches of a staircase tower were scribbled in a copy of Murray's Guide to France.
He was already steeped in the history of building, precociously knowledgeable about building crafts. Morris had trained briefly as an architect in the office of the Gothic revivalist GE Street, architect of the Law Courts in London.
It was in Street's office that he met Philip Webb, the most brilliantly quirky of all Victorian architects. They planned Red House together as a wedding house for Morris, a romantic and extravagantly recondite first home.
The marriage itself could be said to be poetic since Morris, son of an upwardly mobile London city broker, had chosen as his bride the daughter of an Oxford stable hand. Jane Burden was a tall, dark, slim, exotic beauty, most famous of all the Pre-Raphaelite "stunners".
Her baleful gypsy features, staring out from her later portraits by Rossetti, helped establish a new ideal of female looks, the outré superseding the insipid. Red House was conceived as a house that could contain and indeed glorify an unconventional marriage. Morris saw it as "the beautifullest place on earth".
The site chosen by Morris and Webb, after many forays, was in what was then the little hamlet of Upton, near the valley of the river Cray, an offshoot of the Thames. This was just the gentle, homely, almost humdrum English landscape Morris always found so moving.
It was not unlike the Essex country he had roamed through as a child living in Walthamstow. But Kent was richer in historic literary associations. As a stalwart Chaucerian Morris was enthralled by the closeness of Red House to the ancient Watling Street, the route taken by the Canterbury pilgrims, and he named the garden porch at Red House "The Pilgrims' Rest".
The house looms in the landscape as if rooted there, embedded. In architecture Morris looked for qualities of natural growth. The buildings he loved best were those that seemed to have shot up like mushrooms overnight, appearing as if they had never not been there. Red House already shows profound respect for his surroundings in the man who would become one of the first important environmental writers.
The building could appear raw, jarring, almost shocking, but it also held intimations of ancientness. From a distance it could be a barn, an oast house, a medieval hall, dignified by its own history, answering to its own rules and visual consistencies. Red House draws you into its imaginative framework like a powerful literary work.
The plan of the building was poetic in its references. Red House was built in the style of the 13th century, the architectural period that Morris, a Renaissance-hater, felt to be the purest. The two-storey L-shaped building is in effect two sides of a quadrangle. The overtones are Arthurian, chivalric. Remember that William Morris, while at Oxford, had contemplated forming a monastic community, a brotherhood of chastity, with his friend Edward Burne-Jones.
But this is less an inward-looking, more an outward-going building with its vigorous architectural geometry of turrets, gables, hips and ridges and the engraved initials WM high up on the weathervane - not just Pre-Raphaelite bonhomie but also a serious message of intent.
One of the great attractions of the site had been the orchard of apple trees and cherry trees. In so many of Morris's romances an orchard is a place of erotic deliciousness. He contrived to build Red House while saving almost all the trees. Integration of garden and house was planned from the beginning with climbing plants - jasmine, honeysuckle, roses, passion flower - marked in on Philip Webb's elevational drawings.
Morris the early Green was green-fingered, knowledgeable about plant potential and gardening techniques, and under his direction a lush enchanted garden of long grass walks, midsummer lilies and autumn sunflowers flourished.
The garden was as unconventional as the house, designed on the medieval principle, resembling the trellised enclosed gardens of illuminated manuscripts: "four little square gardens making a big square together, each of the smaller squares having a wattle fence round it, with roses growing thickly", as described by Burne-Jones's wife, Georgiana. The National Trust is now working towards the restoration of Morris's influential garden as it was.
If this was the earliest Victorian example of "square plot and trained-hedge garden", Red House itself can be regarded as the invention of the open plan. In 1904 the German critic Hermann Muthesius described it as "the first house to be conceived and built as a unified whole, inside and out, the very first example in the history of the modern house".
In defiance of the rigid internal arrangements of most Victorian houses, the living spaces flowed through from room to room, breaking down the social structures, encouraging less formal male-female relations. Though Morris never went so far as to dispense with servants the kitchen was an unusually pleasant, light, bright space.
"O the joy of those Saturdays to Mondays at Red House." From late summer 1860, when the Morrises moved in, the house became a gathering point for friends from London: Edward Burne-Jones and Georgiana, also newly married; Ford Madox Brown and Emma; Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal, who after years of tension, ill health and drifting, had now married too.
A purpose-built wagonette, designed by Webb and looking like an old market cart roofed in American cloth and lined with chintz, went to meet the visitors at Abbey Wood Station. They spent the weekends playing bowls, teasing William Morris and working together on the décor of the house.
It is this exuberant organic decoration, arising naturally from the lives of those who lived there, that makes Red House poetic in a way no imported professional designer could ever have achieved. Morris and Janey painted the still startlingly modern geometric abstract ceilings and collaborated on embroidered hangings. Burne-Jones and Rossetti painted furniture and murals, and a wall painting believed to be by Lizzie Siddal has only now been rediscovered behind a built-in wardrobe in the main bedroom of the house.
Many of Red House's original furnishings were gradually dispersed, some to Kelmscott Manor, some to the V&A. Tate Britain has the central panel of Rossetti's Dantis Amor painting for the settle in the drawing room. The Ashmolean in Oxford has the wonderful Chaucerian Prioress's Tale wardrobe painted by Burne-Jones for William Morris's wedding. This is surely the time to reassemble them.
Red House was a house of tale-tellers, a place in which the visual fed upon the verbal. Morris was working fitfully on a cycle of poems on the Trojan War at the time Burne-Jones was dreaming of an ambitious series of tempera paintings of the Trojan cycle for the hall and staircase of Red House.
The friends could not resist painting themselves into their stories. Life imitated art which then imitated life. Burne-Jones's mural for the drawing room, based on the 15th-century romance of Sir Degrevaunt, portrays Morris as the king at the wedding feast, resplendent in a midnight-blue robe with golden borders. Janey sits beside him as a medieval queen.
Morris invested huge hopes in the building referred to by Rossetti as "the house that Top built". The name Topsy was an in-joke identifying frizzy-haired Morris with the little slave girl in Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
In its lovingly applied perfectionist detail Red House is the most personal of all Morris's creations, exuding his attraction to the real, his peculiar combination of solidity and sweetness. At Red House we see the start of Morris's theories of home as the necessary basis for contented human life: the place of your own, shot through with your unique experience and memories, the still centre you return to with relief.
For a while William Morris's erratic nervy temperament found a kind of peace. He and Janey had two daughters, Jenny and May, during the years at Red House. Burne-Jones made a cartoon of a possessive father Morris, his arms entwined around them, cutting up their food. The Irish poet William Allingham recorded in his diary arriving at Red House off the early morning steamer: "Jenny and May bright-eyed, curly-pated. WM brusque, careless, with big shoon."
The idyll did not last. In Morris's history there is always the desolation factor. He had chosen the country, but his decorating business was still in London: the day-to-day commuting undermined his health. There were financial worries connected with the firm and a succession of domestic tragedies: the death, probably suicide, of Lizzie Siddal; Georgiana's serious illness and the death of her prematurely born son.
Morris's schemes for the Burne-Jones family to come and live at Red House in buildings forming the completion of the quadrangle, a brotherhood of art and life, were disappointed. They preferred to stay in London, where Burne-Jones's own artistic career was taking off.
By the mid-1860s Rossetti's earlier sexual attraction to Janey was rekindled and Morris's principles of toleration, his belief that no person can be another's keeper, prevented intervention. Over the next decade Morris was to be an agonised spectator of their increasingly intense relationship.
In summer 1865 the Morrises returned to London. Red House was put up for sale. Morris never revisited the building in which he had invested such great hopes. May, who became a designer like her father, retained highly pictorial memories of Bexleyheath: Morris sitting like an Icelandic saga hero in the massive painted chair at the end of the long table; Swinburne lying stretched out in the long grass in the orchard, red hair streaming out around him, while the two small Morris daughters scattered his cheeks with rose petals. May was also aware of "certain dream-pictures" more intimate and tender than she wanted to reveal.
Before leaving Red House Morris's longest (42,000 lines) and most celebrated poem was already rumbling in his mind. By 1870, when the final volume of The Earthly Paradise was published, William Morris was established, at the age of 35, as one of the most popular of all Victorian poets, better known in his own day as a writer than designer and well placed to have succeeded Tennyson as Poet Laureate had it not been for his loathing of the monarchy. He could never envisage himself "sitting down in crimson plush stockings to write birthday odes in honour of all the blooming little Guelfings and Battenburgs that happen to come along".
By coincidence, just as Red House is reopening, Morris's vast narrative poem has been republished in a new edition by the American scholar Florence S Boos. Reading it again, after a 10-year gap, I was struck by how architectural it is, how solid in its framework of the story of the shipload of 14th-century Nordic asylum seekers fleeing the Black Death. They wander from land to land, driven by the vision of the perfect island free from ageing, free from death.
The quest is a disaster. There is no earthly paradise in the terms that they imagined it. The last 12 emaciated elderly survivors finally sail back to Europe, stopping at an island that turns out to be one of the "happy isles" of classical legend. The wanderers are taken in by the elders of the city and they institute the ritual of an exchange of stories, two per month, drawing on classical and medieval sources, building up to the 24 episodes of Morris's wonderfully tactile and very post-modernist romance.
The Earthly Paradise has often been regarded as a despairing poem. It is, I think, the opposite - an epic of resilience. Morris ends it by suggesting that contentment can consist in creative interaction, our human exchanges of experience and perception. Love usually fails. Heartfelt hopes are often shattered. The consolation rests in the intelligent attempt.
Morris refused to be disconsolate as plans for Red House shrivelled. He retreated and rebounded, strengthened by his years there. It had been at Red House, amongst the cherry trees and sunflowers, that Morris's talents as a designer of wallpapers first burgeoned. His earliest three papers were "Trellis", a pattern based on the rose trellises around the central courtyard, "Daisy", the motif he and Janey first embroidered, and "Fruit", an exotic apple paper in which Morris's domestic Kentish apples are conflated with Atalanta's apples, dangerous mythical apples of desire.
Over the next three decades Morris went on to design more than 50 wallpapers, almost 40 chintzes, besides producing patterns for woven textiles, embroideries and carpets in a multiplicity of colourways. He remained true to his method of careful observation of nature in his own gardens, in the meadows and the hedgerows. The resulting freshness and ebullience made Morris the greatest pattern designer of all time.
Red House, though in many ways so personal and private, also had a public purpose. Its completion coincided with the setting up, in Red Lion Square in London, of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, William Morris's co-operative decorating company, later to be known as Morris & Co.
As originally envisaged Red House was to be a kind of showhouse for the firm, demonstrating that good products were not necessarily more costly than appalling ones. Morris had been roused to fury by the "complete degradation" of domestic design, especially in England. He had refused to enter the Great Exhibition of 1851, remaining outside sulking at its hideous vulgarity. He recollected later: "with the conceited courage of a young man I set myself to reforming all that."
The campaign begun at Red House, with just a few purpose-designed furnishings, expanded as Morris's knowledge and confidence increased. The Morris workshops in Red Lion Square were production workshops. The firm also used outside subcontractors and opened its own shop. "A shop like Giotto!" Rossetti exclaimed excitedly, "and a sign on the door!"
In terms of taste the firm was soon a byword for the middle classes: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." An increasingly radicalised Morris was determined about spreading a more democratic message of art available to all. Well into the next century, the moral language of the Festival of Britain and the early days of Habitat, was his. Interesting to recall the art-for-the-people Conran of the 1960s, almost a Morris clone.
Morris was concerned not only with what was made but how it was arrived at. The tentative exercises in collaboration at Red House had convinced him that work could, and should, be as enjoyable as so-called leisure. Morris took up Ruskin's argument in The Stones of Venice that "art is the expression of man's pleasure in labour" with a renewed vigour arising from his own experience, hitting out against the sweatshops that debased human dignity, deriding the false value placed on brain work above hand work, and in a spirit far more radical than Ruskin's suggesting the end of sexual demarcation.
Once aroused, Morris's social indignations knew no bounds, enlarging like one of his immense handwoven tapestries. By the 1870s, although a painfully shy orator, he had forced himself into the public speaker's role, defending ancient buildings against neglect and (worse) crass restoration.
He saw how deeply buildings mattered. Recent television images of war-torn landscapes bring home to us the things that Morris knew as if by instinct: the psychological importance of the central, treasured buildings in a city, the clusters of small buildings by the roadside, making landmarks. The devastation of once-familiar territory brings a particular disorientation.
Morris's feeling for what he called "the skin of the earth" made him a voluble campaigner. He roared out against pollution: "To keep the air pure and the rivers clean!" He decried the destruction of the landscape by the cynical forces of competitive commerce.
In so many of our current environmental issues Morris was there first, and such is his vitality that you can project him forward and ask what would he have thought about food adulteration, over-fishing, destruction of forests, global warming. Imagine William Morris fulminating on the subject of genetically modified foods.
The fierceness of Morris's politics has been glossed over - most of all, as Morris would have been the first to notice, by those with a commercial interest in his products. In the 1996 Morris centenary exhibition at the V&A his political activities were virtually ignored, in spite of the fact that his democratic outlook, his belief that a creative life was everybody's birthright, was the very root of his philosophy of art.
By the 1880s Morris was communing with Marx and supping with the anarchists. He joined the Democratic Federation and then formed his own revolutionary socialist party, the Socialist League, following his art-for-all theories through to their ruthlessly logical conclusion of the workers taking over and controlling the means of production.
William Morris was now regarded as one of the wild men of the time, arrested by the police for wilful obstruction in Marylebone, marked out as a person for special surveillance in contemporary Home Office files.
Morris was a horrified participant in the "Bloody Sunday" demonstration of November 13 1887, when as many as 10,000 unemployed workers and socialist sympathisers marched through London. Police and army, waiting in the side streets, acted with notorious brutality as each new wave of demonstrators approached Trafalgar Square.
A few days later, in the continuing unrest, a young Radical law-writer, Alfred Linnell, was mown down by mounted police in Northumberland Avenue. Morris was a pall-bearer, following the young man's coffin in an immense procession through the streets from Soho to Mile End Road. At Linnell's funeral, in encroaching London drizzle, the crowd of mourners sang the "Death Song". The uncompromising words were William Morris's:
What cometh from west to east awending ?
And who are these, the marchers stern and slow ?
We bear the message that the rich are sending
Aback to those who bade them wake and know.
Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,
But one and all if they would dusk the day.
In 1890, towards the end of his life, Morris wrote a famous visionary novel, News from Nowhere, in which he expresses his still hopeful ideals for a world as it might be. It is, like all his stories, a journey tale, a questing.
News from Nowhere culminates in a boat trip up the river from Hammersmith through the old grey villages of Oxfordshire towards the sources of the Thames. He tells it as the culmination of desire. The loved girl companion Ellen, freckled, stalwart. The loved and hallowed building, many-gabled, simply furnished, with its gently faded tapestry, doves crooning in the dovecot. This idiosyncratic house of welcome is a picture of Kelmscott Manor, Morris's house in Oxfordshire. But the echoes are palpably those of Red House too.
On into the 20th century, News from Nowhere was seized on as a blueprint for a new, more equable, progressive social order. Architects struggled to arrive at a vernacular aesthetic in which good fellowship could flourish and the detail of life mattered. What could be more News from Nowhere than Hampstead Garden Suburb? Arts and Crafts guilds proliferated, with often somewhat desperate attempts at mingling artisans and gentlemen. Potato hoeing infiltrated the curricula of the less hidebound public schools.
Morris's generous, imaginative vision of the possible dominated English socialism in its early years. GDH Cole recollected that he first became a socialist after reading News from Nowhere as a schoolboy. He "realised quite suddenly that William Morris had shown one the vision of a society in which it would be a fine and fortunate experience to live". Clement Atlee, post-war Labour leader, often claimed that his socialist ideals had been formed by reading Morris.
When he became prime minister in 1997 Tony Blair named William Morris as one of his three gurus, the others being Robert Owen and RH Tawney. Blair seems to have gone quiet recently on Morris. Perhaps somebody told him of Morris's opinion that the proper use of the Houses of Parliament was as a storehouse for manure.
Morris is a great Victorian whose true originality has yet to be appreciated. Both a dreamer and a doer, irascible, tremendous, ringing true in all his aspects, "strike him where you will". Red House, like its creator, has a magical integrity, rising high in what is now the land of loft extensions, conservatory build-ons, Georgian doors, block paving, the pretentious and sham.
Other William Morris houses - Water House at Walthamstow, Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, as well as Kelmscott Manor - have their elements of poetry. But Red House is the most moving, the beginning of so much.
· Fiona MacCarthy's biography William Morris: A Life for Our Time is published by Faber and Faber. Red House is open for prebooked tours only. Tel: 01494 755588.