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.
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?”
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.”
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!