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History + Theory Essay

John Ruskin and william Morris (The Red House)

Carolina Saludes-

History and Theory Essay

World Context John Ruskin and William Morris are both symbols of 19th Century English Architecture. Both are products of their time and context, influenced by the numerous effects the industrial revolution had on English and World society in general. The English Revolution, which started around 1750 in the English countryside and the Midlands, had an immediate impact on both the industry and the society at the time. New means of transport, access to more resources and the mechanisation of agriculture and the manufacturing process forced the society into rethinking its social and economic models. The creation of factories meant on one hand the appearance of a working-class emigrated from the countryside, working for almost no money in appalling conditions, and on the other hand the emergence of an upper middle-class with new money and social aspirations. The mass-production of manufactured goods meant products could be bought much cheaper than before, but all in detriment of the quality of the product and the salary of the employee. The Industrial Revolution and the stability that the Reign of Queen Victoria provided was the background for the theories that carried on throughout the 19th century about industrial production, social patterns and the question of whether capitalism was overall beneficial or not to society. In the world of Architecture, a whole new debate arose from both the stylistic legacy of the 18th century and the new needs for the country in terms of urban planning, building types and a formal direction to the architecture of a country that was starting to dominate over most of the world. There was an established confrontation between classicism, influenced by France, and the Gothic Revival, a look back at the medieval point of view about life and construction. This confrontation started off by a mere debate over antiquarianism and the copying of old models of construction, but was eventually replaced by a deeper soul-seeking quest of the definite style in architecture. Architects, ecclesiastics and even politicians sought to find a ‘pure’ style that would reflect the grandeur of England and the piety of its citizens. As such, the Gothic style seemed fit for the purpose, as it represented the clear


John Ruskin and William Morris (The Red House)

est example of architecture born from religious illumination, before it was polluted by the renaissance, pagan architecture. However, this was not enough to solve the need for new cheaper construction methods, new building types such as railway stations, stock markets and factories, and a new relationship between architecture and construction. In this aspect, there where two clear positions when it came to this development. A part of society, specially those who were directly benefitting from industrialisation, welcomed the new fierce capitalism with open arms, supporting the use of new methods like prefabrication of buildings and the use of new materials like iron and glass. The debate on style and form was sterile and did not respond to the new needs of society. All that had to be done was build cheap and get as much money for it as possible. This position seemed totally aberrant for theorists, who supported a much more mystic and theological approach to art and architecture. Money was not the important matter, but the moral improvement of society and the establishment of a formal style that would inspire the following generations like previous Empires had done. The salvation of England as a country was at stake. Supporters of this line of thought are Pugin and Carlyle, both of which inspired Ruskin in his theories, and later on William Morris and Philip Webb and the Arts and Crafts Movement. They tackled the conflict between antiquarianism and a more serious and in-depth approach to 19th century architecture. Pugin, as a fierce catholic, believed that only Gothic could ‘save’ architecture and in general the social and moral fibre of the English population. However, Gothic should be perfected to adapt to the needs of the new society.(1) He believed modernity was decadent compared to the Golden Age of the Middle Ages hence his arguing the superiority of Gothic over Classic architecture. His book ‘Contrasts’ (1836) was a great influence on Ruskin and many other architects of the time such as G.E Street and Charles Barry, chief architect of the Houses of Parliament (begun 1835)(2). John Ruskin John Ruskin ( 8 February 1819 London, 20 January 1900 Brantwood, Coniston Water) is the heir of these conflicts and tried throughout his life to solve them, not just through architecture, but


History and Theory Essay

Pugin, drawings of St. Augustines at Ramsgate, Kent (1844), one of his early proposals of a ‘new Gothic Architecture’

John Ruskin, portrayed by


in 1894

John Ruskin and William Morris (The Red House)

also through social theories, art styles and even literature. Born in London to a rich Merchant family, he was brought up in an intellectual but over protective environment. His mother was extremely religious, and so he was when he grew up, which affected his whole intellectual thinking. This upbringing most probably led to his relationships in life being very dysfunctional, with an annulled marriage due to non-consummation and an infatuation with a 10 year-old child. This could explain his obsession with work, which continued up until his death in 1900. Ruskin wrote numerous books throughout his career, but the ones more influential for the theory of architecture are ‘The 7 Lamps of Architecture’ (1849) and ‘The Stones of Venice’ (1851-1853), published in three volumes and a great influence for William Morris, Philip Webb and the Pre-Raphaelite group. ‘The 7 Lamps of Architecture’ states the principles of ideal architecture in 7 chapters, each of which is a ‘Lamp’, a light in the darkness of the age. The most influential for Morris and The Arts and Crafts movement are the ‘Lamp of sacrifice’, ‘The Lamp of Life’ and most important of all ‘The Lamp of Truth’. The ‘Lamp of Sacrifice’ means that whatever task undertaken by the architect or Artist will be dedicated and inspired by God. The ‘Lamp of Life’ says that every piece of architecture should be hand-made by a craftsman, not by the heartless mechanisms of a machine. And the ‘Lamp of Truth’ states that the architect should always be true to the materials they working with (preferably stone), and be honest about the design they are producing. These principles set the basis for all his architectural thinking, and the book had an immediate impact on architects at the time, specially because of the original distribution of chapters and its mystic, prophetic tone. His other publication, ‘The Stones of Venice’ (1851-1853) was released in three volumes and is divided into two parts: the principles of architecture and the practice of architecture. In a summary written by Ruskin himself at the beginning of the book he explains the main argument behind ‘The Stones of Venice’: Christianity once gave birth to the best architecture, Gothic, which was then rapidly replaced by the Renaissance in the 15th century. This pagan architecture was deviant from the previous pure and true architecture, so now in the 19th century we must restore the ‘real’ style which will enlighten England


History and Theory Essay

into following the great path it is destined for (3). This summarises the principles of architecture, which, added to ‘The 7 Lamps of architecture’, will guide the architect, artist or thinker from darkness to light. For the practice of architecture, more focused on the useful application of his theory, he uses Venice as an example of the possibilities Gothic (and specially late Gothic) render to the architect. He encourages the reader to reflect on the wide range of sub-styles that flourished in the North of Italy during the Middle Ages and to use a variety of forms, always respecting the fundamental architectural principles behind them. He talks of an architecture that responds to a place and a culture, and analyses four prototypes of which he admires the largeness of scale, the clarity of form and the variety of ornamentation. From this last one he arises the question of whether the carver doing those ornaments was happy or not while doing them. It may seem a strange question, but it must be taken into consideration how idealised the Middle Ages were, and on the other hand how horrible circumstances were for poor workers in England at the time. But more relevant than all this is how Ruskin forces the reader (the architect) to formulate his own method of architecture rather than follow some established models and rules. This message, however, did not come across as intended, and the book was taken too literally. This led to architects acting as archeologists, trying to imitate venetian buildings on an English weather. Ruskin was horrified by this, and deduced that the root problem was not artistic, but social. This is why towards his later years, he concentrated much more on the social aspects of architecture, and ended up getting involved in the socialist party, thinking this completely new model of society would not only be more fair on the workman but also morally more elevated. William Morris William Morris ( 24 March 1834 Milfod, Surrey, Walthamstow, 3 October 1896 Kelmscott, Hammersmith) is considered the main disciple of Ruskin’s theory of architecture, and the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, alongside architect and friend Philip Webb !831-1915). Son of a metal industry business-man, he grew up in an upper middleclass family that benefited hugely from the industrial revolution. By the time he went to Oxford University, his father had left him a fortune that


John Ruskin and William Morris (The Red House)

‘The NAture of Gothic’, from ‘Stones of Venice’ by John Ruskin (1853), edited by Morris & Co. at Kelmscott Press (!892)

William Morris (Right) and Edward Burne-Jones in 1890


History and Theory Essay

would guarantee a comfortable life for years to come. He was not interested in making money though and decided early on that he wanted to go into Church. Always interested in Architecture, Arts and Literature, he started writing poems as a teenager, something he would never give up throughout his professional career. At Oxford he met Edward Burne-Jones, Philip Webb, Dante Rosetti, P.P. Marshall, Charles Faulkner and Ford Maddox Brown, with whom he would make life-long friends (They are now known as the ‘Oxford Set’). Together they travelled to France to study Gothic churches, and they read and debated about art, literature and architecture passionately. They shared a love for Ruskin, Carlyle, Dickens, Thackeray and specially the Pre-Raphaelite painters William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Rosetti himself. Early on Morris changed his mind, abandoned his career for the Church and decided he wanted to do architecture instead. Although he would not go on to do architecture for most of his life, he always retained the architectural mind, and a fervour for the profession, which he considered the highest of all. Encouraged by Rosetti, he learned to paint, and in the meantime he showed an interest in various crafts, like stained glass, metal work, painted decoration or calligraphy amongst others. He got a place at G.E. Street’s office in Oxford, and trained there as an architect for two years before moving to London with Edward Burne-Jones. As a follower of Ruskin’s theories, he also believed that industrialisation was a drawback for society, but he took it a step further by demonising the machine, to the point where he would refuse to use any modern machine for his crafts. He kept a very tight control over the whole design and manufacturing process. He kept true to his convictions throughout his entire life. In 1858, he and the young Jane Burden became engaged, and for that purpose Morris commissioned Philip Webb to design a house for him and his future wife in Upton, Bexleyheath, in the south eastern suburbs of London. The Red House + Morris & Co. The Red House, designed in 1859 by both William Morris and Philip Webb, is so called because of the bright red brick of its external walls.


John Ruskin and William Morris (The Red House)

Located in an orchard, surrounded by a medieval-style garden, the Red House symbolises the microcosmos that the Oxford Set, but specially Morris, would dream the world to be if it wasn’t for Capitalism and Industrialisation. It is a utopia of medieval craftsmanship, mixed with a traditional English country-house style that was to become very typical of Philip Webb’s designs. The locally sourced red brick, the asymmetrical form and the the functionality of its facades all resonate John Ruskin’s principles stated in both ‘The 7 Lamps of Architecture’ and ‘The Stones of Venice’. The plan is very clear and compartmented. It is not intended for a high-class family (to which he belonged) with servants living in the house, but for an upper middle-class independent family that would be constantly receiving guests. The concept itself of having the architect design his own house and making it a flagship for his mentality and theories had been carried out beforehand by Pugin in his houses in Salisbury and Ramsgate. However, the Red House holds a special significance as a founding symbol of the Arts and Crafts movement. Also, while the family lived there it provided a frame for experimentation that has rarely been seen in any other buildings. The Morris family moved to the house in 1859, and for the following 5 years it would become a white canvas for the whole ‘Set’ to work on. Morris invited Webb, Burne-Jones, Rosetti and all the Oxford friends over to paint ceramic tiles, design furniture pieces and metal-work, and decorate the house with easel paintings. It was in one of the gatherings that Morris suggested to the others to form a company, a kind of co-operative of artists, each of whom would be specialised in a specific area. This formula had been carried out by an office inspector who called himself ‘Felix Summerly’ and who founded an association of artists, designers, etc. that would collaborate in projects, commissions and exhibitions. In a more amateurish way, the company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. appeared in April 1861 with the Headline: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture and the Metals (4). With this formula, which allowed Morris freedom to experiment with any kind of crafts, he found a channel to his creativity. Not wanting to be a full architect or a full painter, he engaged in bringing back all the disciplines that had long been forgot


History and Theory Essay

‘The Red House’ at Upton,Bexleyheath, Kent (1859)

Original Drawings of ‘The Red House’ by Philip Webb


John Ruskin and William Morris (The Red House)

en, and make them fashionable and meaningful again. In the first years of the company’s life, every member of the group and the family helped with the cutting, sewing, carving and anything that was necessary. But as the business progressed and the commissions grew, there was a pressing need for a bigger place than the Red House and a more professional administration of the finances. So after 5 years living and working in the house, the family had to move back to London, to an apartment and workshop in Queen’s Square. Morris was so distressed he had to leave the house that he promised never to go back or he would not be able to bear it. Although all the members of the company had equal shares in it and had an equal voice when it came to decision making, Morris was always the manager and soul of the business. The others collaborated in loose projects, but he worked in every single product that came out of the workshop. He invested what was left of his inheritance in it and made the company his only means of income. By 1874 he was so deeply involved in the company, he decided to buy the shares off the other members and found Morris & Co., which he did in 1875. Around 1877 the term ‘Arts and Crafts’ started getting mentioned to describe Morris’s work and his philosophy of life. This was extremely beneficial for him and for the company, and hence became the most productive period in Morris’ career. Shortly afterwards he started getting involved in politics by joining several socialist parties, just like Ruskin had started doing. Conclusion The need to do something more proactive to change the established system meant architecture, arts and politics were mixed in a way they hadn’t been before. At the lectures William Morris gave in the 1880s at the University of Edinburgh, he stated: ‘What future have we with art at all unless all can share it?’ (5). This forward thinking clashes somehow with his historicism and his medieval notion of craftsmanship. In perspective, Morris can be described as a man of the 20th century when it comes to the work he produced and the influence he had, but a man stuck in the 19th century in his teaching, which was essentially destructive for him. The influence he had carried on to the Arts and Crafts movement that


History and Theory Essay

developed later on in Europe and the United States. This movement retains all that is modern from MOrris’, Ruskin’s and Pugin’s thinking: the democratic view of architecture, and how everyone should be able to benefit from it; how objects must be made under pleasurable conditions; how important it is to keep true to the materials and the form; and how Art cannot possibly be cheap, only because of the time and dedication it requires (6). The abhorrence of the machine was dropped very early on by C.R. Ashbee, who stated: ‘ Machines are the engine of our society’ (7). The influence of the Arts and Crafts movement stretches then from Ashbee to Muthesius in Germany, and then finally to Vandervelde and Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus (1919-1933). Overall, 19th century English society tried very hard, through Art, Science, Literature and all forms of culture, to come to terms with a New World that brought deep changes to the World of Architecture, Society and the World.


John Ruskin and William Morris (The Red House)

Detail of the Woodpecker Tapestry (1885) by William Morris for Morris & Co.

The Staatliches Bauhaus, founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, with similar principles to Morris & Co.


History and Theory Essay

References (1) From ‘European Architecture 1750-1890’ by Barry Bergdoll Oxford University Press (2) From ‘European Architecture 1750-1890’ by Barry Bergdoll Oxford University Press (3) From ‘Ruskin’ Quentin Bell London (4) From ‘William Morris as a designer’ by Ray Watkinson Studio Vista, Red Lion Square, London (5) From William Morris as a designer Ray Watkinson Studio Vista, Red Lion Square, London (6) From Pioneers of Modern Design NIcholaus Pevsner Penguin Books London (7) From the website


John Ruskin and William Morris (The Red House)

Bibliography European Architecture 1750-1890 Barry Bergdoll Oxford University Press William Morris as a designer Ray Watkinson Studio Vista, Red Lion Square, London Ruskin Quentin Bell The Hogarth Press Pioneers of Modern Design NIcholaus Pevsner Penguin Books London Websites:


2010 HIstory and Theory Essay John Ruskin and the Red House  

Third Year undergraduate essay on the Red House and John Ruskin. Realised between December 2009 and January 2010

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