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The Decorativization of Nature in William Morris’ Red House

A Garden By The Sea 

I KNOW a little garden-close, 

Set thick with lily and red rose, 

Where I would wander if I might 

From dewy morn to dewy night, 

And have one with me wandering. 

And though within it no birds sing, 

William Morris worked with his friend, the architect Phillip Webb, to design and build a beautiful home for himself and his family in the English countryside. In June of 1860, in an era of intense industrialization in England, William and his wife Jane moved into the house. 

And though no pillared house is there, 

And though the apple-boughs are bare 

Of fruit and blossom, would to God 

Her feet upon the green grass trod, 

And I beheld them as before. 

There comes a murmur from the shore, 

William had inherited some “lucky copper shares” ( Blundell) from his father, allowing him to construct the house, but Morris had the heart of a poet rather than an Industrialist. He valued high ideals, and believed art could better thrive in monastic settings in the countryside, in proximity to Nature, than in the crowded, increasingly polluted city center in London. 

And in the close two fair streams are, 

Drawn from the purple hills afar, 

Drawn down unto the restless sea: 

Dark hills whose heath-bloom feeds no bee, 

Dark shore no ship has ever seen, 

Tormented by the billows green 

Morris did indeed carve out a space of seclusion for himself, his budding family, and his friends at the Red House- at least for a while- but he never managed to escape the economic needs that brought him back to the city for work. Indeed, Nature for Morris was not the result and source of inherited wealth, as it would be for a noble, or a source of nourishment and self-sustenance, as it would be for a farmer. At the Red House, Nature might be described as decorative- an uplifting source of Beauty, which connected Morris to the higher ideals that he valued. For Morris, decoration was not pejorative, but instead transformative. In Nature, he found inspiration for his designs and poetry, abstracting their abundance into decoration to uplift and bring joy to those who experienced it. As a result, perhaps, of the high ideals which Morris prioritized, and which made the house so beautiful, the Red House was not financially self-sustaining, and the family only had the opportunity to stay there for five years, before selling as a result of financial need. 

Whose murmur comes unceasingly 

Unto the place for which I cry. 

For which I cry both day and night, 

For which I let slip all delight, 

Whereby I grow both deaf and blind, 

Careless to win, unskilled to find, 

And quick to lose what all men seek. 

Yet tottering as I am and weak, 

In crafting his idyllic home in the countryside, and clutching to it for a few years before the harsh winds of economic need pushed him out, did Morris offer a transformational proposal for how people could create a life for themselves outside the rising tide of industrial economic activity? Or was the house itself the product of a system which, while opposed to Morris’ values, afforded him the resources to manifest his shangri la? What steps could Morris have taken to make his ideal world more self-sustaining and self-sufficient?


We’ll be investigating here how the decorativization of Nature in the Red House was indicative of a broader sentimental response to Nature following the dire living conditions caused by Industrialism, yet which ultimately led to a situation where wealthier participants in this economic system could take wealth earned from the industrial economy and flee to greener spaces outside the city center, living in a decorativized version of Nature while continuing to profit from modern luxuries afforded by the very industrial activity that they are trying to escape. We will explore Morris’ own intentions for the house, which seem largely driven by an interest in the possibilities of subjective perception and the values of the soul, and consider how this might suggest for us a metaphysics where the manifestations of the spirit co-mingle with the material world, to leave traces of a spiritual reality that exists beyond that which can be quantified and measured- a realm simultaneously distinct from but co-mingled with terrestrial economics. 

Still have I left a little breath 

To seek within the jaws of death 

An entrance to that happy place, 

To seek the unforgotten face, 

Once seen, once kissed, once reft from me 

Anigh the murmuring of the sea. 

-A Garden by the Sea, William Morris 

Choosing how to use the Earth: land use at the Red House 

Choosing how to use the Earth is similar to choosing how to use one’s body or one’s mind; it is a fundamental reflection of one’s belief system. Observing a person’s or society’s material culture can give us insight into the question: what do they believe is the purpose of existing; for example, the study of art historical artifacts, such as Mesopotamian devotional figurines, the Tombs of Ur, Celtic stone circles, or medieval altar pieces, reveal to us the motivations, metaphysics, beliefs, and subjective experience of human life, often gesturing or explicitly pointing to religious belief as the primary motivating factor in life, outside of survival. To understand land use at the Red House, we will take a look at how monastic lifestyles and structures influenced the design and function of the Red House, and at how Victorian-era interest in hospitality, coupled with Morris’ interest in creating a shared community centered around crafts-based work, gestured toward a nostalgic alternative utopianism, with characteristics of the Romanticist backlash to Industrialism. Waithe interestingly posits that the concepts of hospitality present in the design and function of the Red House reflect a sentimentality toward or at least indirect influence from feudal-era social norms, reifying the notion that Morris’ particular utopianism had an element of nostalgia. 

Influence of monasticism 


Morris and Webb were influenced by monastic buildings, and the function of the land and building at the Red House are, in some ways, monastic- a place for serene reflection, in a space that is at least striving toward separation from economic concerns. In considering Morris’ interest in monastic lifestyles and structures, a picture emerges of a man struggling with the cognitive dissonance of wanting simultaneously to live a virtuous, self-sufficient life in Nature, and to live rather luxuriously, in a beautiful environment, without toiling away as a farmer or as an Industrialist. In many ways, Morris’ interest in monasticism reveals how the economic system of the Red House may have had similarities to the economic systems of monasteries, which function as isolated communes dedicated to craft, virtue, and worship- sheltered from economic concern, but supported externally. Waithe touches on the difference between seclusion and isolation at the Red House, noting the wall that surrounds the property, and suggesting that the privacy of the Red House does not reflect a “seizure of access rights”, so much as a “staking of humanity’s claim to a garden amidst the wilderness.”


The monastic style of the plan further reflects an interest in the uplifting, even joyful potential of seclusion- a somewhat communal refuge from the “commercially interconnected” world beyond. 

To contextualize Morris’ interest in monastic communities, we can take a look at how Katrin Langewiesche characterizes the economic relationships that Catholic contemplative nuns in Africa were engaged in while they were living in cloister, in her text “Transnational monasteries: The economic performance of cloistered women,”, observing, “The contemplative orders aim to live at a considerable remove from societal normality. However, in order to be able to survive materially as a community, they successfully develop alternative economic forms, interact with their local environment, and build transnational networks or integrate into them. They emerge as local and transnational actors, change in the course of these processes, and contribute to social change in the societies in which they participate.” This vignette illustrates how even communities which may strive to decouple from economic exchange remain inextricably co-mingled with broader sociopolitical and economic forces. To live requires a person to co-mingle the values and desires of the spirit with systems of terrestrial economics. 

Origin of the suburban life- fleeing from polluted urban conditions to live on a single-family home outside the city center 

We can speculate on Morris experiencing some measure of cognitive dissonance with regards to his relationship with the rapidly industrializing landscape of England as we investigate his relationship with the railroad- the quintessential image of Industrialism, captured by JMW Turner in his painting Rain, Steam, and Speed.




JMW Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed. Image via: National Gallery. 

This was the era of British history in which Orwell darkly characterized coal workers as the “grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported.” This was the era of nascent climate crisis, urban pollution, and extreme environmental and social transformation as the result of industry. Only eight years before William and Jane moved into the Red House, London experienced the Great Smog of London in 1952, which resulted in thousands of deaths as a result of the polluted haze that hung over the city for days on end. This crisis is described by the Encyclopedia of Britannica as a watershed moment in the environmental movement; new climate legislation was passed after the deadly Smog. Notably, in the era following the Great Smog, Morris reportedly was vocally critical of railroad lines, but became a frequent commuter to London via the rail. (Blundell). 


Seclusion and hospitality; a pastoral community centered around crafts-based work 


William Morris believed that art was morally elevating, and that it could not thrive in palatial surroundings. Morris, like many Romantics, felt that Nature was where artists were most capable of thriving and cultivating their work. However, Morris’ interest in hospitality works toward preventing the seclusion of the home from progressing negatively toward intellectual or social isolation. Waithe suggests that the penchant for hospitality- a Victorian-era “enthusiasm”- gestures toward an alternative utopian ideal, predicated on “openness, tolerance, and pluralism.” The Victoria and Albert Museum similarly observes an interest in sociability, even in the environment of nearly monastic seclusion at the Red House, noting that Morris had a “strong interest in reviving the template of a medieval-style work-based community.” (V&A Museum). 


Working with these values, Webb designed for the home to be flexible and accommodating- a place where friends and family could co-exist, pursuing both work and leisure in a shared community. According to the museum, the furnishings and decorations in the Red House were crafted by William and Jane Morris and their social circle of friends and family, “featuring bespoke elements that included hangings and embroideries by William and Jane Morris, tiles and murals by Edward Burne-Jones, and furniture, tiles, metalwork and tableware by Philip Webb.” Philip Webb’s design drawings for the Red House emphasize craft and artistry. They are delicately drawn by hand, and gesture toward a craftsmanship style of architecture and woodworking. The character of the elements seems to have a flair for the artful, eschewing purely functional construction for construction methods that delight in the art of carpentry. The aestheticized character of these drawings is fitting for the home, its occupants, and its intended use. For Morris, craftsmanship and virtue seem intertwined.


Architectural drawing, Philip Speakman Webb, 1859,England. Museum no. E.64-1916. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

Craft and virtue 

Morris manifested his views on craftsmanship, community, and virtue materially in the building, where the design values “directness” and “honesty”, articulating and putting the craftsmanship of construction on display. The design seems to prioritize craftsmanship over fanciness, as apparent in the complex brickwork of the drawing room fireplace, which was more labor-intensive and likely more expensive for Morris than one made out of something posh like marble. In fact, Blundell describes the building as having “poetic ruthlessness” that would have stunned viewers with its “plainness, directness, and earthiness.” 

These aesthetic decisions give us a window into Morris’ and Webb’s ideas and belief systems.In Blundell’s “Architecture as Mnemonic: The Accumulation of Memories around Morris's Red House,” Blundell explores how Morris’ home is a vessel of memory, particularly for Morris’ values, lifestyle, and philosophical influences. Like an art historian might, Blundell investigates Morris’ use and transformation of the material world as a window of insight into Morris’ subjective experience and belief systems. The decoration of the Red House is particularly rife with insight into Morris’ values.

The role of decoration at the Red House 

Waithe, unlike Blundell, emphasizes the use of certain forms of applied decoration, such as the fresco, which he feels reflect Morris’ belief in the “transfigurative power of decoration.” Aspects of the decoration at the Red House reflect a belief in finding fulfillment through higher ideals, and the power of Love. Like Blundell, Waithe refers to the writing of A.W. Pugin with regard to the Red House. Pugin believed that “the decoration of an object should always be in harmony with its function.” 

Despite Morris’ commitment to values of honesty and simplicity, the building was by no means bare bones or ascetic. Rather, Blundell suggests that the building had a contrived, self-conscious simplicity which was actually realized at great care and expense, although the building’s rejection of applied decoration is described as a proto-Modernist quality. Clearly, there is some disagreement among scholars as to whether the home embraces or rejects “decoration.” This may be the result of Morris’ and Webb’s unique approach toward “decoration”, which emphasizes the idea of virtuous, collaborative craft rather than the application of posh, expensive materials. There is a related tension between honesty and affect in the home’s courtyard, where we can recognize what some might call a faux naif gesture in the inclusion of a hand-pump for the home’s water well.

The water well 

The land, and even some aspects of the design of the Red House, appear to have been driven by sentiment and poetic meaning, rather than for pragmatic use and economic potential. For example, Morris installed a well with a bucket, in a prominent location in the central courtyard. However, modern technology had, by this point in time, rendered the actual hand-bucket extraneous, although still usable. This well takes on a particular importance, according to Blundell Jones, who notes that wells, like apples, are important images in Morris’ poems. The building centers around the court, and featured prominently in this court is the water well. The building is, in some ways, a stage for the water well, which performs its duties in the spotlight, while any supplementary activities of the building and its occupants occur in the wings, or else they observe, encircling the court like an audience around the stage. 


Morris’ relationship with Romanticism, and the relationship between Romanticism and Industrialism 

The work of Morris and Webb can be contextualized as contemporary to the Romantic movement in the arts. Romanticism is an intellectual and aesthetic movement, which the Encyclopedia Britannica describes as having characterized many cultural works “in Western civilization over a period from the late 18th to mid-19th century,” and which involved a revival of interest in medieval Gothic architecture in England and Germany. (Britannica). Romanticism idealized the pastoral, conceived of the artist as a creative subject inspired by Nature, and can be broadly considered as something of a “Newtonian opposite,” or reactionary force, against the intellectual milieu that propelled Industrialization. (Britannica / common knowledge).

The image of the artist in a state of transcendence with Nature is expressed in Morris’ poem Earth the Healer, Earth the Keeper, in which the subject momentarily forgets that they are bound to a terrestrial, metabolizing self, bound by the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics; enraptured momentarily by the dawn light, the poet momentarily experiences the sublime- forgetting, for a moment, that they were “born to die.” 

Lo! lo! the dawn-blink yonder, 

The sunrise draweth nigh, 

And men forget to wonder 

That they were born to die. 

-excerpt of Earth the Healer, Earth the Keeper by William Morris 

In these words, we seem to be given the image of what Morris hoped to achieve at the Red House. 

Intellectual, architectural and social legacy of the Red House 

Morris’ and Webb’s conflation of craftsmanship with virtue forges a paradigm for design and construction which is both nostalgic and avant-garde. If investigated through a coldly materialist lens, the design and function of the Red House may seem frivolous and sentimental, but upon investigating the documentation and scholarship of the Red House, it is clear that Morris was not approaching the idea of a home through that lens- rather, Morris was a Romantic-era poet and artist, striving to propose an alternative utopian vision for how a community of craftspersons can co-exist in, if not mutually self-supporting symbiosis, at least close proximity to Nature. Morris and Webb’s paradigm for design and construction remains relevant today, as terms like “honest” materials, “co-housing”, and “live-work spaces'' are often thrown about in architectural dialogue, and commuters still stake their “claim to a garden” in the suburbs while commuting in to the city via rail. As we look toward a future where architecture is increasingly designed in collaboration with artificial intelligence, to be produced as pre-fab panels in a factory, or by robotic printers on site, it may be valuable to consider if the alternative utopia proposed by Morris and Webb suggests a different route forward, where the material culture is not about the mass generation of structures through the automation of labor, but about creating holistically nurturing relations of mutual support, fostering livelihoods through the practice of skilled trade, and creating architecture as an expression of life.




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Waithe, Marcus. “The Stranger at the Gate: Privacy, Property, and the Structures of Welcome at William Morris's Red House.” Victorian Studies, vol. 46, no. 4, 2004, pp. 567–595., 

Langewiesche, Katrin. “Transnational Monasteries: The Economic Performance of Cloistered Women.” Social Compass, vol. 62, no. 2, 2015, pp. 132–146., 

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“Earth the Healer, Earth the Keeper by William Morris.” By William Morris - Famous Poems, Famous Poets. - All Poetry,,-Earth-The-Keeper. 

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