News

Conservators Uncover Collaborative Pre-Raphaelite Mural

by Jillian Steinhauer on August 19, 2013

The newly discovered bedroom mural at the Red House, attributed to William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, and Ford Madox Brown

The newly discovered bedroom mural at the Red House, attributed to William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, and Ford Madox Brown (all photos courtesy the Red House on Twitter)

Conservators have discovered an entire wall painting done by five Pre-Raphaelite artists in a house in a London suburb. The building, known as the Red House, was the home of Arts and Crafts movement founder William Morris between 1860 and 1865; sometime during those years, Morris completed the painting in collaboration with artists Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal (Rossetti’s wife), and Ford Madox Brown.

The figure of Rachel, after conservation (click to enlarge)

The figure of Rachel, after conservation (click to enlarge)

Prior to the discovery, staff at the Red House had seen two figures painted on the bedroom wall and hidden behind a cupboard; they assumed these were the small work of a single artist. But two months of conservation led to the discovery of an entire 6-by-8-foot wall mural done by different hands. The work shows five life-size Biblical figures, all of them painted as if occupying different folds of a single tapestry: Adam and Eve, with serpent; Noah, holding a miniature ark, and Rachel and Jacob, with ladder.

As for who painted what, that’s a bit tougher to parse. Jan Marsh, author and president of the William Morris Society, said in a press release:

“The concept of the overall design was almost certainly by Morris. Our initial thoughts are that the figure of Jacob was by Morris, Rachel possibly by Elizabeth Siddal, Noah by Madox Brown. But who painted Adam and Eve? Maybe Rossetti or Burne-Jones?”

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve

But this uncertainty seems like part of the point, at least for the artists in the 1860s: they were hanging out, collaborating, having fun, and generally not worrying about historical attribution. The Guardian calls the Red House “a party house, devoted to games of hide and seek, music, silly practical jokes and food fights in the drawing room.”

Detail of Jacob's arm (click to enlarge)

Detail of Jacob’s arm (click to enlarge)

Morris and his wife, Janey Burden, went crazy with the decorating, too — as one might expect from the leader of the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris’s friends helped decorate walls, ceilings, and furniture, and the National Trust, which owns the house, has been working to uncover and restore all that it can (including a gorgeous wedding feast scene attributed to Burne-Jones). Property manager James Breslin told the Guardian, “Basically every white surface in the house is suspect – there will be colour underneath it.” And then this: “Why have three clashing patterns when you can have six, seems to have been their motto.” Words to live by!

The mural before and after conservation

The mural before and after conservation

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  • David Gerhard

    Looks like the collaboration continued…

  • johnwallis42

    Rossetti was shagging Jane Morris while she was married to William; those poets never could keep it in their pants, I think it was all the opium.

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