Monday, 19 August 2013

Murals at Red House

These two views above show before and after the startling revelations under paper and panelling in the drawing room at Red House -- the startlingly bright and crisp patterning above and beneath Burne-Jones's Sir Degravant narrative episodes.  The Qui bien aime tard oublie design, all surely done by Morris himself,  extends under the dado right round the end [south] wall from window to door while the repeating scatter of roses on dark green fills the roof gable either side of the loft door.  It's the  decoration Morris conceived and created for his  first big project, and foreshadows so much else.  Revealing the full extent also optically enlarges the Degravant panels, previously cramped between battens holding the protective glass, to give them their  correct proportion in relation to wall and room.
The sloping ceiling was also patterned - fragments have been uncovered to date, and if one imagines the now-white-painted woodwork in its original hues - ox blood, maybe also decorated - then the original scheme grows even more splendid, in the manner of Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch.  William Burges was in fact an early visitor to Red House, and presumably absorbed the effect of Morris's whole decorative intention, to  be more professionally but not more excitingly copied.   below a photo of the uncovering in progress which gives a slightly better view than the before-and-after shots.  But none quite conveys the visual thrill of entering the room to see the designs in real view.
The National Trust has devoted more media attention to the interesting and intriguing but less impressive wall paintings in the bedroom alongside the drawing room -largely because they are figurative, albeit in a sorry state.   Almost equally exciting however because drawn from the medieval Golden Legend, with quotations running below the figures, and the Golden Legend was one of Morris's key sourcebooks, to which he and Burne-Jones returned for what proved their final project.  The Golden Legend inspired the Kelmscott Press, and was one of the first texts to be printed there.
From left to right the Red House mural shows Adam & Eve, with serpent; Noah cradling a model ark, Rachel looking sad, and Jacob with a foot on his ladder. 
Although the figures seem painted in a naïve almost childlike manner, the concept is in fact sophisticated, for the frieze is drawn to represent a fabric hanging in folds, like a curtain or unstretched tapestry, so that some figures are half-unseen and the whole unevenly visible.  Morris was surely responsible for subject and design, but the authorship of the figures is debated and conjectural.  Ideas currently invoke early widow designs:  a similar Noah by Madox Brown is in Troutbeck church, while Adam & Eve resemble a Rossetti stained glass design.  For sentiment's sake Rachel is allocated to Elizabeth Siddal, since one of her few surviving letters refers to painting a figure on a wall at Red House; as yet Jacob has no firm contenders.  A better image and some rather garbled copy here:
At a stroke, the interior of Red House has become 100% more interesting, in relation to its architectural design, visual impact and daily experience; in respect of its inspiration for the Firm and Morris's future design career; and in regard to our understanding of Morris's lifelong creative impulses and energies.


  1. I am so sorry that my visit to the Red House was two years ago now! I'm not sure when I'll be back over to the UK, but if I do get back, I will make a beeline for the Red House! These murals are so exciting!!

  2. I am so curious as to who/why the mural was covered up to begin with!