Anti-scrape and The Red House

In the past six weeks or so I've had my mother, my sister and two friends down to visit me in London, on separate occasions, and as a result I've been out and about a lot at various exhibitions, museums, and parks, and pottering the streets of London, which has given me a lot to think and blog about, so I've a mental backlog of posts waiting to be put up here. The first is about the Red House, in Bexleyheath, which my mum and I visited over one of the bank holiday weekends (I forget which one).

The house was commissioned by William Morris, designed in collaboration with the architect Philip Webb, and finished in 1860. Morris and his family lived in it only until 1865 when the pressures of trying to run Morris & Co., based in London, from this remote base, became too great. They moved to Queen's Square in Bloomsbury, into the same premises as the Morris workshop. Nevertheless, the five years spent at the Red House seem to have been an idyllic time, with friends visiting from London and the children growing up - Burne-Jones described it as 'the beautifullest place on earth'.

In the 1950s the house came into the ownership of the Hollamby family, who lived there with friends for many years, and in 2003 it came into the possession of the National Trust, who have been uncovering its secrets ever since.

The house and gardens are stunningly beautiful - we visited on a sunny day and despite the fact that the area is now far more built up than it was when Morris bought the land, the house still feels quite secluded and I could have spent many happy hours lolling about on the grass under the fruit trees. The house, with its higgledy piggledy shape and arched porches, looks inviting, and the red brick is warm to the touch.

Inside, it's rather…odd. It's empty, and unfinished, but with very tangible reminders of all of its previous inhabitants, both in the furnishing and decoration, but also in more incidental details like the array of mid 20th century books on the shelving upstairs, and the glass panels of an interior door, etched with the names of 19th century visitors. The layout of the house is lovely, and the rooms are beautiful and well proportioned with lots of light flowing in. The central staircase is impressive without dominating the interior. The house is mostly unfurnished, apart from a few enormous pieces like the settle, below.

Settle in the hallway at Red House, with painting by William Morris partially completed.  Image source.
Much of what was in the house during the time that Morris and his family lived there was dispersed later to either Kelmscott Manor (Morris' later home) or the V&A, and the interior feels somewhat fragmented because of this - although some bits have started to trickle back, like this wool and silk embroidered panel, only one of a set which was designed to hang around the dining room.

Wool and silk embroidered panel. Image source.
Both the panel and the settle above are unfinished, and that's what characterises the interior of the Red House, for me - it feels very much like a work in progress. This is due in part to the Morris clan's short lived residence here - the decor, which was carried out in an organic, collaborative fashion, was never finished, and Morris' dream to see the house become the centre of a community of life and art, with the Burne-Jones' moving in nearby, was never fully realised.

It's also partly because the National Trust are still uncovering murals and paintings by the Morris set which were, until remarkably recently, hidden behind white emulsion and wooden panels - in only January of this year a wall painting, possibly by Lizzie Siddal, was discovered when a wardrobe was removed (conservation work is going on as I write, and the Red House keep everyone updated on progress via their Facebook page, so if you're interested, 'like' their page for near-daily updates). In the upstairs drawing room, removal of wooden batons installed in the 1890s suggests that the walls and ceiling may be covered in extensive paintings, complementing the Burne-Jones murals already visible. As yet, conservation in this room hasn't begun, and the walls are covered in small squares which indicate where the Trust has tried to scrape away the existing paint and peek at what lurks behind.

Part way through conservation of the Lizzie Siddal wall painting, with some wallpaper still to be scraped away.  Image taken from Red House Facebook page.
There's also plenty of evidence of the house's more recent owners in the form of 1950s bookcases and a lovely Ercol style workspace. The laminated room guides we looked at were rather gracious towards the Red House's twentieth century inhabitants, praising their efforts to preserve the house, although I wasn't quite sure if it was also the Hollambys and their friends who had been responsible for covering the walls in white emulsion, or the previous owners. Some Morris & Co. wallpapers had been installed around the house, one of the guides informed us, by the Hollambys - they couldn't have been there while Morris inhabited the house, since production on the first Morris & Co. wallpaper (which wasn't of the design currently at the Red House) only began in 1864, a year before the house was abandoned. Recently, some glassware had been donated to the Trust, designed by Philip Webb specifically for the Red House, and that was on display with the house's architectural plans in one of the rooms.

On the train home, reflecting on both the impressively painstaking work of the conservators and the strange, 'in flux' feel of the house, I couldn't help but wonder what Morris might have thought of the renovations and restorations. In 1877 he helped found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, whose aim was to encourage those who dealt with old buildings 'to put Protection in the place of Restoration', and his views on the subject, which later came to be known as principles of 'anti-scrape', were developed out of John Ruskin's writings in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and Stones of Venice (1851). In the former, Ruskin writes that restoration is 'the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed'. For Ruskin, there's a spirit in the architectural work, imbued by the hand of the craftsman, which 'can never be recalled', and this renders even mere copying pointless, and nigh on impossible;

'If you copy what is left, granting fidelity to be possible (and what care, or watchfulness, or cost can secure it,) how is the new work better than the old? There was yet in the old some life, some mysterious suggestion of what it had been, and of what it had lost.'

This passage indicates that there is some glory in the age of the building, even if that age has not treated the work kindly. Harking back, to some false sense of the 'original', is to erase that glory. Similary, Morris wrote in the manifesto for the SPAB that
'the civilised world of the nineteenth century has no style of its own amidst its wide knowledge of the styles of other centuries. From this lack and this gain arose in men’s minds the strange idea of the Restoration of ancient buildings; and a strange and most fatal idea, which by its very name implies that it is possible to strip from a building this, that, and the other part of its history - of its life that is - and then to stay the hand at some arbitrary point, and leave it still historical, living, and even as it once was.'

For Morris, as for Ruskin, restoration is akin to forgery, a 'false description,' for it pretends to authenticity where none is possible. At least in previous times, Morris suggested,
'If repairs were needed, if ambition or piety pricked on to change, that change was of necessity wrought in the unmistakable fashion of the time... but every change, whatever history it destroyed, left history in the gap, and was alive with the spirit of the deeds done midst its fashioning. The result of all this was often a building in which the many changes, though harsh and visible enough, were, by their very contrast, interesting and instructive and could by no possibility mislead'
It's the pretence of restoration which Ruskin and Morris object to, its implicit lie. The Red House is a curious mixture of both 'visible and contrasting' changes to its original state (50s furnishings, the conversion of the kitchen into the gift shop), and what Morris might call 'a feeble and lifeless forgery' (the addition of the Morris wallpapers). Would removing the wood panelling which covers some original Pre-Raphaelite murals be a lie as well? A denial of the life of the building between 1865 and the present day, the removal of what Ruskin calls 'the golden stain of time', which hallows the exterior of old buildings? Are attempts to restore the original spirit of the house and its makers - misguided (as Morris would have it) or noble?

The conservators at Red House, of course, are highly trained professionals, not the blundering builders whom Morris imagined, with
'no guide but each his own individual whim to point out to them what is admirable and what contemptible; while the very nature of their task compels them to destroy something and to supply the gap by imagining what the earlier builders should or might have done.'
Any changes the Trust makes at Red House will be, certainly, thoroughly researched and as historically accurate as possible, like the proposed changes to restore the gardens to the original plan. But whatever reconstruction takes place, it first requires the 'scrape', the obliteration of the interim, which Morris and Ruskin so deplored, as the restoration of the mural behind the wardrobe demonstrates. One can't help but wonder if Morris would have remained true to his principles faced with the recovery and restoration of the works of himself and his contemporaries.

I don't know what the National Trust's ultimate aims for Red House are - whether they want to be faithful to the house's narrative, right from its construction to present day, and keep all the signs of life that remain, from etchings to ercol; or whether they hope, in time, to reconstruct the interior as it would have existed in the 1860s, gathering the scattered Red House pieces from other museums and galleries, and getting rid of the white emulsion. And I'm not sure which is right, either. The Hollamby family lived, and dwelt, and had their being here, too, and their habitation of the house is as much a part of its history as the brief spell which Morris and his extended family spent here. But if it were up to me, to scrape away at the wall coverings, and uncover, perhaps, some hidden Pre-Raphaelite gem, is a temptation I don't think I could resist.

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