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How Does the Red House by Phillip Webb Embody the Arts and Crafts Movement?

How Does the Red House by Phillip Webb Embody the Arts and Crafts Movement?

Summary: There was a change, due to a brotherhood of designers, in the balance of emphasis between style and method As a result of numerous discussions between the architect Philip Webb and the designer William Morris (1834-96) on a boat trip in France in 1859 the unique Red House in Bexleyheath, England was created as a residence for Morris himself. It is thought by many that the Red House is the definitive arts and crafts style house complying with the central conceptualisations originally visualised by Morris, Webb and their contemporary associates.


How does the Red House by Philip Webb Embody the Arts and Crafts Movement"

"To create as far as possible a new philosophy, emphasising craftsmanship and materials." (William Morris)

Architecture is essentially the art and science of the construction of buildings. In 1858 a new architectural philosophy was conceived collaborated with a growing sense of freedom in all aspects of design. There was a change, due to a brotherhood of designers, in the balance of emphasis between style and method As a result of numerous discussions between the architect Philip Webb and the designer William Morris (1834-96) on a boat trip in France in 1859 the unique Red House in Bexleyheath, England was created as a residence for Morris himself. The two designers have become known, in many ways, as the pioneers of the arts and crafts movement, a period of artistic revolution, which although short lived was subtly significant in the following developments in architecture. It is generally considered that the arts and crafts movement fully emerged from1870 and was considered inactive as a form of contemporary design around 1914. Within this time the philosophy of vivacity and freedom in craftsmanship and materiality remained consistent. The movement itself is not apparently progressional in the same respect as classicism, baroque and gothic styles and revivals. It is thought by many that the Red House is the definitive arts and crafts style house complying with the central conceptualisations originally visualised by Morris, Webb and their contemporary associates. However, how far did the quotation above (Morris' stated intentions for the Red House) encapsulate the essence of arts and crafts as a movement"

Context of Architecture and surrounding ideals

It is integral to view the Red House within both a wide and local context. The gothic revival had become the preferred architecture of both country houses and public building particularly seen in English churches. The architect Augustus Pugin (1812-52) had played a large part in the popularity of gothic building in the second quarter of the 19th century. His conversion to Catholicism formed the notion that Gothic architecture was proper to Christian England dismissing the austerity and grandeur of the classical style. The Gothic element is immediately seen on the Red House in the pointed arches of the doors and windows. Webb and Morris were also aware of the architectural critic John Ruskin. He noticed on a Gothic Cathedral in 1951, "The signs of life and liberty of every workman who struck the stones." Pugin believed that the ornamentation of a building should only be expressed as essential parts of the construction not as a separate additional entity. To me, gothic arches present this ideal of greater freedom of beneficial details such as the fenestration of buildings. The work of Pugin, Ruskin and the format of a renowned church architect William Butterfield (1814-1900) was adopted by Philip Webb. Butterfield's Coalpit Heath Vicarage, Avon (1844-5) displays a vernacular style expressed by the particular use of materials; local red brick patterning, freedom and grouping of fenestration and loss of axial symmetry, characteristics of the movement, Webb created a corridor style L-shape which led to each room. A sense of favour towards the Victorian desire for comfortable domestic space and style of masonry is seen in much of Butterfield's work and is directly shown in the Red House.

Experiencing Arts and Crafts buildings

The Red House gave the style first seen in Butterfield's work a new social standing. The comfort of living within the style of building became popular with the Victorian upper middle class. Oscar Wilde proclaimed a favour to the arts and crafts movement in a series of lectures in America, " The artist is not concerned primarily with any theory of life but with life itself, with the joy and loveliness that should come daily on the eye and ear for a beautiful external world." The house was built for Morris to reflect his own socialist ideals that were shared with many of his contempories. The values of these ideals were a simplistic combination of the enjoyment of each of the senses based around the desire for a comfortable domestic lifestyle. This essence remains an integral part of the later arts and crafts buildings both in England and in America. In California, Greene and Greene's Gamble House 1908, although externally very different in style the ideal is fundamentally the same. The beautifully carved timber staircases overhang inglenook seats showing a sense of comfort, relaxation, an enjoyment of the domestic life that the upper middle class visualised in the arts and crafts style. Every nook and window in the Red House is home to a carved window seat, Morris' textiles, and a piece of personalised artwork or a beautiful display of natural material.

Materials and Craftsmanship

The Red House exhibits an aesthetic which can only be achieved with an acute appreciation of materials and craftsmanship like that of Webb and Morris. Like Ruskin Morris hated the over use of machinery and used no cast metals. This was an integral part of the arts and crafts design. The exterior shows a very characteristic style of masonry, built from the local red brick. The simple desire to use surrounding materials is also seen in the majority of arts and crafts cottages. Earnest Barnsley's Rodmarton Manor 1909 is a perfect example of traditional Cotswold stone building built by hand. Here we can see, however the primitism felt in the construction without unnecessary machinery, a development of the movement, has led to a resulting medieval feel. Many of the arts and crafts building's were accused of moving backwards in architectural development. The balance of method and style was more successful in the Red House. Webb's knowledge of building and Morris' textile's and design qualities were inseparably intertwined. The entrance and back doorway, a reflection of the gothic revival, are both inlaid archways with patterned brick trimming also reflected on the fireplaces, this natural material is balanced with the designs of Morris' interior textiles; carpets, wallpaper and curtains all encompassing the earthly tone of the natural red brick. Morris' intentions were to reflect the integrity of nature in an architectural context. Shaw Sparrow said of architecture, "There must be poetry as well as mathematics." In arts and crafts this is shown through materials.

The Interior and the Brotherhood

It becomes clear when we move from the conception into the more detailed exploration of the styles in the interior of the house that we are discovering a new genre. It is evident that it is completely detached from the formality of previous classical or gothic revival predessors. The house is a fascinating example of the collaboration of all types of art within an architectural expression. The discussion so far has centered on the visions of Morris and Webb alone and although it is fair to say that their ideals were expressed most directly in the house they were not the sole contributors to the style ultimately created. The predominant work is of Edward Burne-Jones, Faulkner (who was present as the idea first arose on the boat in France), Rosetti, Webb and Morris' wife Jane Burden who was responsible for the embroidery in the house.

This collection of oil painters, writers and designers created a personalised masterpiece which is not just a building but a reflection of an idyllic haven, an honest reflection of materials and a way of life. The German writer Hermann Muthesius wrote of the domestic lifestyle in England, "Das Englische Haus," reflecting that the Englishman at this time builds his house for himself rather than the pomposity of social standing. The simplistic unity of craftsmanship, design and materials epitomizes the arts and crafts concept. Sparrow believed the house was, "a stimulus to the imagination." The Pre-Raphaelite 'brotherhood' each had individual attributes which have combined to create different aspects of the movement. Rosetti described the house as, "more of a poem than a house." The ornamentation of the architectural construction is deeply considered to create a particular feeling. Frank Lloyd Wright reflects that this wasn't only an attribute unique to the arts and crafts movement, "Every architect is a poet... he must be an original interpreter of his time his day his age." In many ways this encapsulates a freedom present in design possibilities in Webb and Morris' time.

Morris' vision

Morris can be highlighted in particular for his part in creating the Red House style. The familiarities of his textiles have echoed through design into our own contemporary surrounding. The design of his interiors is centralised around his desire to create autonomy between the house itself and the surrounding landscape. This created a sense of romanticism for Morris as he was able to experience a lifestyle on many different levels. This is directly seen in the floral quality of the wallpaper designs and the flowers that were drawn into the architectural elevations. Muthesias describes it as, "The first house to be conceived as a whole inside and out." This ideal was seen as an innovation of the movement but was not followed by all. Baillee Scott's The Cloisters in Regents Park in London 1912-13 was designed with a quadrant front garden and small entrance archways laden in flowers which are an integral part of the success of the houses design. Although later on the Morris' ideal of natural house in a naturalistic environment was broken down. Prior created a sense of order of design which he saw as the human form of nature.

Freedom of fenestration

The aspect of design which has been most manipulated and is undeniably a characteristic of the arts and craft movement in the incredible freedom seen in the design of the fenestration. The design and number of windows articulated the new sense of expression. This is perfectly exemplified in the three circular openings at the back of the house, brightly lighting the hallway on the second floor. There is no attempt to conceal the plan of each floor and the building is expressed through a series of different designs, shapes and sizes of the windows patterned intentionally on each fa├žade. The freedom of fenestration is matched by the L-shaped plan, both of which reflect the lifestyle of the occupant. The use of fenestration in this way is used throughout the arts and crafts movement and beyond. Home Place in Norfolk 1903-1905 shows Prior's combination of freedom of brickwork combined with the placement, size and design of the windows. Edward Hollamby writes the list of window designs of the Red house, "relieving arches to shallow segmental arches to sliding sash windows."


As you describe the diversity of building details whether it is the painting, materials, patterns, timber carving, furniture, doorways, garden design, embroidery you accumulate what seems to be an architectural poetry which embodies the arts and crafts movement. The arts and crafts society website describes the Red House as a combination of Eclectic gothic and English Romantic architecture and essentially this is the basis of arts and crafts design. It could be viewed that the Red House is in fact the only true arts and crafts building because of the sense of individuality in its creation which conjures a unique style of architecture. In a wider respect Oscar Wilde said, " The art we want is the art based on all invention of modern civilisation, and to suit the needs of nineteenth century life," Morris held ideals which were based on simplicity and requirement of the individual and the time, which became a realisation of following architects within the movement. It is the collaboration of craftsmanship and Morris' new artistic culture which defines the Red House undeniably to encapsulate the arts and crafts movement.



Architecture in Detail: The Red House: Edward Hollamby 1991

Arts and Crafts Architecture: Davey, Peter 1980

Victorian Houses and their Details: Long, Helen 2002

European Architecture 1750-1890 Bergdoll, Barry 2000

Art and the Handicraftman: a lecture by Oscar Wilde 1882

The Arts and Crafts society website www.arts-crafts.com

The William Morris society website www.morrissociety.org

Commodity firmness and Delight An essay by Peter Hunter

Thorpness, Suffolk an exploration o

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Taylor Bell said...

I know what you mean about looking forward to reading with kids. I also looked forward to it for years and built up a collection of the books I thought I might want to read with my hypothetical future child. The actual child turned out to like a slightly different subset of books. Who will inherit my Elsie Dinsmore books?????

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