Whenever discussing Pre-Raphaelite house design (as we were yesterday), I'm always reminded of this wry description of Edward Burne-Jones' country place, North End House in Rottingdean, as seen from a child's perspective. The child is his grand-daughter, who grew up to be the novelist Angela Thirkell:
"Curtains and chintzes were all were all of Morris stuffs, a bright pattern of yellow birds and red roses," Angela writes. "The low sofa and oak table were designed by one or another Pre-Raphaelite friend of the house, or made to my grandfather's orders by the village carpenter. As I look back on the furniture of my grandparents' two houses I marvel chiefly at the entire lack of comfort which the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood succeeded in creating for itself. It was not, I think, so much that they actively despised comfort, as that the word conveyed absolutely nothing to them whatever. I can truthfully say that neither at North End Road [in London] nor at North End House [in Rottingdean] was there a single chair that invited to repose, and the only piece of comfortable furniture that my grandparents ever possessed was their drawing-room sofa in London, a perfectly ordinary large sofa with good springs, only disguised by Morris chintzes. The sofas at Rottingdean were simply long low tables with a little balustrade round two, or sometimes three sides, made of plain oak, or of some inferior wood painted white. There was a slight concession to human frailty in the addition of rigidly hard squabs covered with chintz or blue linen and when to these my grandmother had added a small bolster apparently made of concrete and two or three thin unyielding cushions, she almost blamed herself for wallowing in undeserved luxury.
"The best sofa in the house was a massive wooden affair painted shiny black. It was too short to lie on and you could only sit on it in an upright position, as if you tried to lean you hit your head against the high back. It was upholstered in yellow-brown velvet of such rich and excellent quality that it stuck to one's clothes, making it impossible to move about, and the unyielding cushions and rigid bolsters took up more room than the unlucky users.
"Each bedroom was provided with an oak washing-stand of massive proportions and a towel-horse conceived on aethetic lines but sadly wanting in stability and far too apt to fall heavily forward on to a small child, smothering it in bath towels. As for Pre-Raphaelite beds, it can only have been the physical vigour and perfect health of their original designers that made them believe their work was fit to sleep in. It is true that the spring mattress was then in embryonic stage and there were no spiral springs to prevent a bed from taking the shape of a drinking-trough after a few weeks' use, but even this does not excuse the use of wooden slats running lengthways as an aid to refreshing slumber.
"Luckily children never know when they are uncomfortable and the Pre-Raphaelites had in many essentials the childlike mind."
Words: The text above is from Three Houses, a short but delightful memoir by Angela Thirkell (Oxford University Press, 1931); all rights reserved by the author's estate.
Pictures: The Briar Rose design by William Morris, in progress. A photograph of Burne-Jones with his grand-daughter Angela. The classic, simple "Sussex chair" produced by Morris & Co. "Ladies & Animals," a painted sideboard by Burne-Jones. The front hallway of Red House, an Arts & Crafts building designed by William Morris & Phillip Webb. Topsy (Morris) and Ned (Burne-Jones) on a hand-painted settle in their rooms at Red Lion Square, drawn by satirist Max Beerbohm for his book Rossetti and His Circle (1922).