By Wendy Parkins, Kent University
The exciting re-discovery of wall paintings and decorations during recent restoration work at William Morris’s Red House – as widely reported in the media this week – raises as many questions as it answers. Who painted the five Old Testament figures in the mural in the main bedroom? And why? After all, Noah holding a miniature ark doesn’t exactly say ‘honeymoon suite’, not to mention the sense of foreboding a depiction of Adam and Eve (and snake) in the room of a newly-wed couple might connote. Conservators and Morris scholars have already advanced a theory of collaborative production for these distinctive figures that are now seen to be depicted on a rich blue background that imitates wall hangings (and hence explains why some of the figures seem abruptly terminated or crudely depicted – they are partially obscured by the imaginary folds of the fabric).
Similar questions have also been raised as to how many hands contributed to the painted panels in the drawing room. And why was a sleeping wombat (see below) substituted for the more elegantly proportioned dog that appeared in Burne-Jones’ preliminary sketches?
While – to Australian eyes like mine – the wombat is rather dubious in its authenticity (the paws, elongated shape, and soft folds of fur are plain wrong but the snout and eyes more accurate) but it is in keeping with other 19th-century renderings of foreign marsupials (whose exoticism sometimes eluded the representational skills of European artists) and – more importantly – the significance of the wombat for the Morris-Rossetti circle inclines me, at least, to concur with the consensus that it is indeed a wombat.
Whether the presence of a wombat also proves that this panel was painted by Rossetti is another matter. (For other views on the drawing-room wombat thesis, join in any number of debates currently raging in cyberspace, where some have gone to the trouble of posting actual photographs of wombats to back up their claims.)
But as this image – contextualizing the creature under the chair – shows any insistence on natural verisimilitude – or symmetry of design, or harmony of form – is merely arid academicism, when faced with the sensory overload that is the Red House drawing room as it is being increasingly divested of its white cover-up.
To describe it as ‘busy’ is the equivalent of calling Rossetti a recreational drug user. For anyone who has visited Red House in the past and perhaps been disappointed by the dominance of plain white walls and woodwork in the upstairs drawing room, the revelation of the riot of colour, pattern and design, is almost overwhelming. While much of the white paneling remains in place in the drawing room (as well as the wall covered in 60s-design bookshelves), what has now been exposed and restored gives a greater sense of the slightly trippy feel of the room: boldly-coloured patterns and painted panels are somewhat jarringly juxtaposed on walls and ceiling, as the before-and-after image below shows.
The full effect of the wall surrounding the minstrel’s gallery-settle (the white-painted timberwork now even more out of place in its cool blandness) where the panels of narrative painting appear between the heraldic repeat pattern, laid over the bold stripes of colour (ochre and deep pink) below dado level and, above, what Red House is calling Morris’s ‘first attempt at a repeat flower pattern’ is almost intense enough to require the viewer to gaze out the window at the restful greens of the summer garden to regain her equanimity.
In addition, the removal of a few of the narrow timber beams that adorn the vaulted ceiling of the drawing room have revealed not one but two distinct forms of patterning – one a geometric design with the customary pricking of plaster that features in other Red House ceilings (to facilitate the painting of the pattern in strong, contrasting, flat colours), the other a more complex pattern – that presumably covers the whole ceiling. According to Georgiana Burne-Jones,[i] a regular visitor to Red House and close friend to both William and Jane at this time, the drawing-room ceiling was painted by the Morrises together, a striking image not only of a couple engaged in joint creative labour (as I noted previously[ii]) but now suggesting a greater artistic capacity on the part of Jane Morris than has previously been acknowledged.[iii]
Such is the excess of bold colours, figurative panels, and varying patterns now evident in the Red House drawing room that it is easier to understand William Bell Scott’s bafflement on encountering the ‘vast empty hall … painted coarsely in bands of wild foliage over both wall and ceiling…. The adornment had a novel, not to say startling, character, but if one had been told it was the South Sea Island style of thing one could have easily believed such to be the case, so bizarre was the execution.’[iv]
While Morris scholars and art historians will no doubt continue to puzzle over the provenance and purpose of the newly-revealed murals and designs, my interest in what everyday life was like at Red House during the years the Morrises lived there (1861-1865) has been given a new lease of life with these discoveries. I have previously wondered whether Red House always smelt of wet paint during this time, given the scope and ambition of the decorative processes that were set in train (if not completed) in many of the rooms and spaces of the house, and these discoveries suggest that this may indeed have been the case. With the display of increasing areas of design and decoration, in which no decorative idea seems to have been left untried and few seem to have been finished completely, what can we infer about the messy realities of life at Red House? Being greeted by the smell of drying paint would have given a sensory immediacy to the perception that this was no ordinary middle-class home but one where a high priority was given to collaborative creativity, where the mundane activities of family life, like the convivial weekend house parties, took place amidst paint and brushes, ladders and dropcloths. Did life interrupt art? Or was art the condition of everyday life in the Morris home?
Like the first album of a fresh new band, not yet corrupted, jaded or disillusioned but brimming with ideas and energy they are desperate to bring to life, the decorations of Red House have a vitality and optimism that is both infectious and poignant. You want to pick up a paintbrush and join them. There must be space to squeeze in another wombat or two.
Author’s Note: I am very grateful to James Breslin, property manager of Red House, who generously gave me his time during a very busy week, and especially for his suggestion of the analogy between the Red House decorations and a band’s first album.
[i] Georgiana Burne-Jones, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, Vol. I, 1833-1867 (London: Macmillan, 1904), p. 211
[ii] Wendy Parkins, ‘Feeling at Home: Gender and Creative Agency at Red House,’ Journal of Victorian Culture, 15.1 (April 2010), p. 72.
[iii] For more on Jane Morris’s creative projects, see Wendy Parkins, Jane Morris: The Burden of History (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), chapter 5.
[iv] William Bell Scott, Autobiographical Notes of the Life of William Bell Scott: And Notices of his Artistic and Poetic Circle of Friends 1830-1882, ed. W. Minto (London: James R. Osgood, McIlvaine and Co., 1892), p. 61.
Wendy Parkins is a Professor of Victorian Literature at the University of Kent. She has published widely on topics relating to gender and modernity in Victorian literature, most notably her book, Mobility and Modernity in Women’s Novels, 1850s-1930s (2009). In 2013, she published Jane Morris: The Burden of History with Edinburgh University Press.
Related Articles from the Journal of Victorian Culture
- Wendy Parkins, ‘Feeling at Home: Gender and Creative Agency at Red House,’ Journal of Victorian Culture, 15.1 (April 2010), p. 61-81.
- Hilary M. Carey, ”The Secret of England’s Greatness’: Medievalism, Ornithology, and Anglican Imperialism in the Aboriginal Gospel Book of Sir George Grey,’ Journal of Victorian Culture, 16.3 (Dec. 2011), p. 323-346.