Why you should care
Because who doesn’t love mercurial marsupials?
“It is a most noble work in every way and more a poem than a home.” This was Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s lyrical way of describing a family house built to be “medieval in spirit.” Red House, finished in 1860 for William Morris and his wife, Jane, serves as a vivid reminder of the owner and his friends’ drive to surround themselves with beauty and medieval design … with some four-legged marsupials thrown in for good measure.
In addition to embracing Arts and Crafts style, complete with etched glass, repetitively stunning floral wallpapers and opulent painted murals, visitors to this lovely red-brick abode in Bexleyheath, southeast of London, can appreciate an artistic obsession with wombats.
Oh how the family affections combat
Within this heart, and each hour flings a bomb at
My burning soul! Neither from owl nor from bat
Can peace be gained until I clasp my wombat.
Rossetti’s poem hints at his love for the creatures from Down Under, but cartoons, comics, sketches and inclusions in paintings by him and the other late-era Pre-Raphaelites reveal his obsession. The artists’ friend Thomas Woolner visited Australia in the 1850s and brought back this idea of the wombat, says Megan Tanner, Smaller London Properties Manager for the National Trust, noting how Edward Burne-Jones would “draw endless sketches and cartoons and depictions in all sorts of comical situations” of the creatures. But Rossetti went beyond that. Known for frequenting the London Zoo to see the rotund, spirited critters and their antics, Rossetti “went so far as to purchase a wombat,” Tanner says. Seeing a likeness to his feisty, slightly overweight friend Morris, Rossetti named his pet Top, also his nickname for Red House’s owner.
“The Wombat is a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness!” Rossetti once wrote.
Over the years, layers of wallpaper and paint have been piled atop those left in the home by Morris and Co., but renovations have helped shed light on what once was. One treasured find was a mural of Genesis biblical scenes found under paint and behind a giant piece of furniture in Morris’ bedroom, which experts believe includes paintings by Lizzie Siddal — Rossetti’s wife — and others, as well as a sense for the multitude of patterns and rich colors that were employed to decorate the home. In restoring the wall murals in Red House’s drawing room, Tanner says, “we discovered a little furry creature sitting under the wedding scene” painted by Burne-Jones to depict the wedding of William and Jane. “We believe [it] is a Pre-Raphaelite wombat,” she adds.
“The Wombat is a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness!” Rossetti once wrote. At one point he even drew Jane Morris, his longtime muse, holding a leash, at the end of which sat a wombat. The tamed pet is clearly meant to represent William — a point that seems less comical when you consider that Rossetti and Jane had a longtime affair. But most of the wombat depictions are cheerful, and the artistic clan even included them in their famed Oxford Union murals, which predate Red House.
Taking inspiration from their furry find on the drawing room wall, the National Trust has ensured that its 25,000 annual visitors can now hunt for stuffed wombats throughout the tour and even take one home from the gift shop (entry is $11.50). Sporting names in tribute to the artists involved with the house, like Pip for architect Philip Webb and Top for Morris himself, the Red House wombat trail is a marketing ploy with some serious claws.