Nairn’s London #18
Red House, Bexleyheath
THEN: A very famous building – William Morris’s house, commissioned from the young Philip Webb as a deliberate reaction from everything implied in mid-Victorian design, a shock as big as Butterfield’s first churches. But the achievement is nowhere near All Saints, Margaret Street. Webb simply could not make his volumes real enough or forceful enough. It is clearly a beautifully thought out design, honest and sensitive, but it stays in two dimensions. Photographs or drawings can give it a solidity which does not exist in the flesh, so its final influence matched the worthy intentions, which is perhaps fair enough. Anyone who makes a visit may get more of a shock from the mean subtopian surroundings than from the building – Bexleyheath would be nobody’s first choice as the ideal London suburb. It is in Red House Lane, south of the main street.
NOW: It’s not often that you find something you dislike and like at the same time. Red House somehow manages it. And the most inexcusable thing is I’m not sure why I’m so torn. On the approach up the semi-circular driveway, the house stands stout and proud. Inside, the hallway is grand, and the staircases impressive. And there are Morris & Co patterns aplenty across wall, window and ceiling. But there’s an arrogance that hangs about the place, a pompousness that feels completely at odds with the arts and crafts movement it housed for so long. The English Gothic and medieval furnishings give it a macabre feel. And there are one too many Morris coat of arms that nudge pride into narcissism. There’s a lot to feel uneasy about.