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Red House and Eltham Palace

Given the dire weather forecasts of gales and driving rain, the eight intrepid Freelancers were particularly blessed with sunshine and a light breeze for a trip into the past. First we went back to 1859 when the newly married William Morris bought a plot of land in the hamlet of Upton near Bexleyheath, Kent. Working closely with the talented young architect, Philip Webb, Morris planned and built a striking, modestly-sized house surrounded by orchards and gardens both of which were to be very influential (not least on the work of architect Edwyn Lutyens and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll). Even today, the house and garden are an oasis in the midst of traffic-clogged suburbia. Our tour guide was a member of the Friends of Red House and it is largely due to their voluntary efforts that the place has survived intact, to be purchased and opened by The National Trust just recently. Much of the furnishings and contents are now at Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire.

Although inhabited by Morris for only five years, the place is redolent of his character, taste and ethos. Intended as a creative centre for artists and craftsmen including Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rosetti (who eventually had a long running affair with Morris's wife, Jane). Needless to say, locals were scandalised and disapproving of the incomers and their 13th century influenced house. The exterior with its steeply pitched rooves and turrets show the interior structure, windows are placed at differing levels and in various shapes and sizes to perform functions for the rooms and staircases within. The turreted well-head has become an icon of Red House around which Morris and his acolytes would relax and discuss matters of culture and politics.

Inside the house are some remarkable survivors of numerous occupants including the National Assistance Board during the Second World War: a partially painted settle by Morris, handpainted stained glass, oak staircase and other large pieces of furniture. One gets a flavour of what it must have been like to live in the house before electricity, gas and water were laid on. As the National Trust do more research and, one hopes, open up more rooms, who knows what they will find under layers of paint and paper?

A few miles away, we dived back to the 13th century and the birth of an important house which by 1348 was one of the largest and most frequented royal residences in the country. Although nowadays Eltham, if it is known at all, is famous as the birthplace of Bob Hope and Frankie Howerd, it clearly was a centre of national importance in past centuries. Again the surrounding housing estates don't encroach upon the moated castle standing high on a promontory overlooking south London. Large parts of the original building were demolished in the seventeenth century and by the 1700s the great hall with its wonderfully carved hammer beam roof was used as a sheep barn. The Courtauld family, who grew wealthy in the textile industry, took the site over in the 1930s and - amid some controversy - obtained permission to undertake massive rebuilding and restoration of the great hall which centuries earlier had played host to two thousand banqueting courtiers and nobles in one sitting.

Entrance Hall in Eltham Palace with large circular rug by American designer Marion Dorn.

Thus we find an amazing mixture of medieval, Tudor and twentieth century influences. The interiors, in particular are dripping with 1930s opulence and art deco features which the Courtaulds introduced to make a really striking, fashionably modern, high status home. Huge circular features (domed ceilings pierced by circular glass lights), a massive circular deco carpet, interior portholes from the curving staircases are dressed with exotic veneers and parquetry. Sunken baths and onyx trimmings are found in the en suite bathrooms. A centralised vacuum system allows a cleaner to be plugged into hose sockets in many of the rooms. Telephonic communication was available in many rooms. The pet ring-tailed lemur evn had its own little palace with jungle murals.

The great hall buzzed with an Art Deco fair on the day we visited and the Courtauld rebuild enabled us to ascend to the minstrels gallery and observe it all below. From 1945 to 1992 the palace was used by Army Education services (there's a toilet upstairs which still bears the motto 'Batmen' on the door, while the gardens were maintained by the Royal Parks. It's a strange mix of different eras which somehow works with its reclaimed nobility and suave glamour. The servants' quarters and kitchens resemble a municipal high school with their plain painted walls and high ceilings, they now house the tea rooms, where some of us had luncheon, and the gift shop.

As the clouds gathered, it was time to depart after a most enjoyable day out.

--Borin Van Loon, September 2004.

All photographs by Andrew Smith. Further info & pics for Red House available from the NT website. Further info & pics for Eltham Palace from the English Heritage website.

A group of Freelance members made their way down to South-East London on Sunday 12th September, 2004 to visit two historic and design-related houses: Red House in Bexleyheath, home of designer and poet William Morris, and the amazing Art Deco inspired Eltham Palace. This is our Chairman's report.

Red House, south and east wings.

Front door of Red House on north side.

Exterior (main entrance) of Eltham Palace designed by John Seely and Paul Paget.

Detail over the entrance colonnade.

Loggia and newly created gardens in the old moat.

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