Morris commissioned Philip Webb to design Red House when they were just 25 and 27-years-old, respectively. Photo: Barry Waddam.
A rewiring project at Arts and Crafts designer William Morris’s home, Red House in Bexleyheath, left National Trust staff amazed when they found a letter under the floorboards that had lain undisturbed for 140 years.
Volunteer Anna McEvoy was reaching under the exposed joists of the second guest bedroom when she chanced upon something papery. On pulling it out, she found it was a handwritten letter dated 1864, from architect Philip Webb to his friend William Morris.
“It is an exciting discovery,” said Dr Jan Marsh, author of William Morris and Red House, “because very little documentary evidence survives from this date – a crucial moment in William Morris’s life and that of the firm when the youthful idealism that powered both was checked”.
The letter, with the date 1864 visible in the top right. © Nick Kelly/NTPL.
The letter is a very personal communication between two friends and proponents of the design philosophy later known as Arts and Crafts. It would have reached Morris at a low ebb in his life, when he was suffering from rheumatic fever and his firm was not turning profits.
Morris Marshall Faulkner & Co (later Morris & Co) had just produced its first wallpaper, but Morris had had to sell some of his personal picture collection to keep the firm going.
Webb wishes Morris well in the letter: “I can only hope that you are not in great pain and that you manage to keep up your spirits.”
Webb mentions helping out in Morris's London shop in the letter. © Nick Kelly/NTPL.
It was also a crucial moment in the history of Red House, where Morris hoped to establish a creative commune by inviting his friend, artist Edward Burne-Jones, and wife to live alongside him in an extension, being designed by Webb.
However, Burne-Jones’ new-born son was very unwell and died just three days after Webb penned his letter. Perhaps its optimistic tone was a poignant reminder of dashed hopes and bereavement for Morris, accounting for its strange resting place.
Other factors brought Morris sadness at this time. His father-in-law had recently died, and his mourning wife, Jane, was becoming ill. The isolation of the property finally led Morris to move back to London in 1865, saying that “commuting killed the idyll”.