Upbringing and Education
Charles Francis Annesley Voysey was born on May 28th 1857, the eldest son of a clergyman, Rev. Charles Voysey who was vicar of Healaugh in Yorkshire. The Rev. Charles Voysey was dismissed from the Anglican Church for teaching ‘unapproved doctrine’ like ‘Is every statement in the Bible about our Heavenly Father true?’, and refusing to back down when tried for heresy in the House of Lords. After being ejected from the Anglican Church, the Rev. Charles Voysey founded a non-conformist church. The Healaugh affair had a lasting effect on the Voysey family, leaving CFA Voysey with strong religious convictions, and the belief that ideological certainties surpassed all other considerations. His childhood in the English countryside undoubtedly instilled in him a strong sense of English vernacular architecture. Apart from a short spell at Dulwich College, he was educated by a private tutor, and went directly from his education to being articled in the office of J.P. Seddon. After his articles he became an assistant to Saxon Snell and then George Devey. By 1882 he was working for himself.
Voysey held deep religious convictions on the role of spirituality in design and respect for nature and the Creator, and tried to express these views through his work. He wasn’t interested in the socialist ideals held by William Morris, or the work of the Fabian Society.
Voysey began his solo career by designing patterns for paper and textiles, and these were sold to manufacturers such as Essex & Co. and Alexander Morton. He was very successful in this field and obtained many contacts which eventually resulted in later architectural commissions. He made no distinction between the uses of patterns for different techniques; many patterns were reproduced in both wallpaper and fabric
His pattern designs can be separated into three distinct types:
Type One: This consists purely of carefully observed botanical forms, ranging from large, fleshy, realistic leaves to pared-down, more stylised designs. Light, clear colours were used predominately, the patterns outlined in a darker or lighter colour. He researched botanical forms by copying from photographs or using imprints of leaves and flowers.
- Type Two: Voysey begins to include birds in many forms in his designs, in and amongst plants and flowers. He combines observation with stylisation, and uses a flat picture plane.
- Type Three: Loosely Heraldic. This is more rigid than other types; the use of symbols becomes more important than the overall pattern. He seems to lose the free-flowing nature of his earlier designs. In some designs the symbolism is easy to see, such as Queen Victoria’s Jubilee design, but in other designs the symbols are more personal. Voysey spoke on symbolism in design, and wrote a full explanation of his ideas. There is a deep sense of religious conviction behind his designs, for example: An eagle was explained to be symbolic of heavenward quest because it is the highest flyer and furthest seer. He occasionally used human figures in his designs, but these were probably the least successful of his natural forms.
By the time he married, Voysey had built up a steady source of income from his pattern design and had begun to establish an architectural practice, using contacts gained during his pattern work to look for clients. He refused offers from family and friends to find commissions, feeling instead that
‘a client should choose his architect because he had a liking for the man and his work, and that the advice of an architect so chosen would be more readily accepted that the advice of an architect chosen to favour a friend, or as an act of patronage.’1
The general style of his houses is an extended vernacular cottage form, with large, continuous roofs with low rooflines, protruding below the upper storey windows, and irregular massing of structure. He presumably sought influence from rural or pastoral life
, evoking the cottage form into a much larger structure. He was forming the English vernacular
style into a more regular architectural language, but there are elements of artificiality or quaintness. He did include more progressive features in his houses, these include: solid ground floors, fireplaces that drew air from outside the house to prevent draughts in the living space, air flues for ventilation, and iron windows set in stone mullions
. He thought the most suitable architecture for a country is its native style, which has grown out of knowledge of local conditions. He even goes to say that the Creator gave these characteristics to each country and the people should work out the best form of building to survive the conditions.
Voysey had a strong idea of what a domestic interior should be, and stressed the importance of a good family home:
‘In the category of qualities of general need we should put repose, cheerfulness, simplicity, breadth, warmth, quietness in storm, economy of upkeep, evidence of protection, harmony with surroundings, absence of dark passages or places, evenness of temperature, making the home the frame to its inmates, for rich and poor alike will appreciate these qualities.’2
This shows an attitude approaching a devotion to the importance of security and comfort at home. He thought of the home as a spiritual shelter as well as a material one. Although he thought of the home as being built around the family, he was quite inflexible in his design decisions; he always thought that his solution was the best. Because of this attitude he lost a number of clients, but he would rather lose a client than sacrifice his principles. Oddly, Voysey rarely used his own pattern designs in a house; he thought the best background for his furniture was plain, light coloured walls, or wooden panelling. The pattern shouldn’t overshadow the furniture. A typical Voysey interior is fairly low, emphasised by a high mantelpiece and low picture rail. The upper walls and ceiling are plain and white, with no cornice mouldings. The walls are preferably panelled in light oak, matching the colour of the furniture, or, if the budget does not run to oak, deal painted white. If panelling is not used, then they are simply a plain painted surface. Floors are usually a natural finish – oak floorboards or quarry tiles, with possibly a patterned carpet in the more comfortable rooms. Interiors conforming to these specifications can be found at The Orchard in Chorleywood (1899) and The Homestead in Frinton-On-Sea (1905-6). In houses such as E.J. Horniman’s house at Garden Corner, Chelsea (1906), where Voysey had to work within an existing house, the interiors seem to be much grander, less cottage-like, than those buildings where Voysey was free to both build and furnish.
‘We must restrain the carver, the inlayer, the polisher and the metalworker and be careful that the thought in their design is as good as its execution. Also encourage them to concentrate ornament and cease to use it as a means of hiding cheap construction and bad workmanship and material.’3
‘Simplicity in decoration is one of the most essential qualities without which no true richness is possible. To know where to stop and what not to do is a long way on the road to being a great decorator’4
Voysey’s principle concerns in furniture design were to avoid ‘brainless elaboration’, not to seek ‘effectiveness’ but instead ‘genuine quality’. He wanted to make pieces to suit everyday life in the home, and did this by referring to older vernacular furniture forms and updating or refining them to suit modern-day life. His most prolific period of furniture design was between 1895 and 1910, which coincides with his main period of house building. A Voysey design is difficult to characterise, because his range was so large. He considered
‘everything inside the house to be within the Architect’s province, from fittings and furniture to the very toothbrushes’.5
But there are some elements which appear in a lot of his designs: The use of motifs, heart and bird forms crop up repeatedly, it is possible that he is referencing decorative elements from vernacular furniture, or there is significance in his choice of these motifs. Visible construction was very important; honesty in construction was a top consideration. Chair legs especially seem to taper and are chamfered gradually from a square section to an octagonal section, giving them an appearance of delicacy. Back supports on chairs and upright posts on cupboards and dressers continue some distance from the top horizontal. This serves to emphasise the support elements of the furniture, cupboards are taken further and caps or cornices are put on the top of the protruding uprights. The use of proportion was very important, but not the mathematical proportion used in architecture, instead a
‘spontaneous expression and never deliberately formularised … it should be as unnoticed in its birth as our own voices are to ourselves.’
The material used is almost exclusively untreated oak, specified to be ‘clean from the plane’, no varnish or stain to be used. These characteristics are very well demonstrated by two dining chairs designed in 1898
and used in many interiors subsequently. One has a single broad splat
in a balustrade shape pierced by two hearts, one inverted and a rush seat. The second uses five vertical lathes for the back. Both chairs use the gradually tapered leg, plain, rectangular stretchers and tapered continuation of the back supports.
Any decoration used was sparing, piercing is found on both chair backs and on applied metal, which would have to be an extension of function. He uses brass strap hinges extensively, these look like they were derived from a Puginian original, but Voysey trims away much of Pugin’s ornament, therefore focusing attention onto the actual shape of the piece. The strap hinges would terminate in a heart shape, the centre of which was either left open or pieced with an animal form. The heart shape also sometimes occurs in the escutcheons. The metalwork was made by Elsey & Co., and was eventually available commercially.
There is a consideration that Voysey uses a limited design vocabulary in his furniture, but he is actually thinking of the restrictions of machine production and having to design within these restrictions. This means a beauty based on careful design and proportioning, rather than elaborate decoration. Although his pieces were limited production items for specific interiors, he appreciated the benefits of machine construction. He wasn’t interested in William Morris’s return to an individual craftsman approach, but he welcomes machine production as a means to ‘…liberate men’s minds for more intellectual work…’6
But Voysey’s designs, although having some recurring elements, were by no means limited to a number of adapted designs, or designs based on a formula. Voysey’s range as a designer is enormous, with a continuing desire to experiment and innovate. Two examples of this are his Swan Chair, designed between 1883 and 1885, but probably not first constructed until 1896. This chair has a much freer, curving line than other Voysey furniture; its form is reminiscent of a Glastonbury chair with its X-frame shape, although lighter, more delicate. Pegged, visible construction is used, which doesn’t often occur after this design. The only elements of this that are typical of Voysey are the use of oak and the carved bird motif in the back supports. Another design that is atypical of Voysey is his hanging bookcase of 1896, which shows much more overt ‘traditional’ influences, it has extensive low-relief carving across the front and has two carved monk figures on its protruding verticals. The strap hinges are also different to his other designs; they don’t have the terminating heart shape and seem to be more complicated. It is different to other Voysey pieces but resemblances to this design can be found in A.W. Simpson’s catalogues. A.W. Simpson was a designer who also ran a firm of craftsmen, which Voysey used for manufacturing some of his work. Simpson was influenced by Voysey’s work but is feasible that it worked the other way as well.
Consideration of possible sources
Voysey had a great admiration for the work of A.W.N. Pugin, complimenting him for his great originality while using the Gothic idiom.
‘You may search the Houses of Parliament from top to bottom, and you will not find one superficial yard that is copied from any pre-existing building.’7
Voysey’s Swan chair is possibly a derivative of a Pugin design, and Voysey’s recurring strap hinges are closely derived from Pugin examples. These are the closest Voysey gets to Pugin’s forms; Voysey’s great concern was to be an individualist in design, he admired the work of William Morris, but only visited Morris’s Oxford Street
shop once, and refused to visit ever again, unless Voysey’s work becomes a slavish copy of Morris’s. Voysey’s pattern design does develop elements from Morris’s designs, but also resembles the work of the Century Guild
from the 1880
’s, specifically the use of bird forms. Voysey said in later life that the work of William Burges
, E.W. Godwin
and A.H. Mackmurdo
did influence his pattern design work, as they were all designing for Jeffery & Co
. at one point, so they may well have come into contact with Voysey. He does recognise A.H. Mackmurdo as an influence, an element that they share is the capped, extended uprights on cupboards or dressers. But these capped uprights are also used by a number of designers, they can’t be specifically thought of as an aspect of Voysey’s design. E.W. Godwin is another possible source for some elements, there is a Voysey bureau from 1895 where the central cabinet is slung between the legs, and the supports extend out. But this is difficult to justify because Voysey had strong views on the suitability of each country’s own vernacular traditions for their particular usage. His love and knowledge of the English vernacular style must have come from his childhood in the Yorkshire countryside, he must have spent a lot of time in his father’s Norman church of St. John the Baptist, Healaugh.
Voysey was also a member of both the Art Worker’s Guild and the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society and exhibited some of his furniture and metalwork with them, so he is definitely coming into contact with his contemporary designers.
The most important concern when looking for sources of Voysey’s designs is that he considered being an ‘individualist’ paramount, he wrote a book called ‘Individuality’ detailing his principles that formed the basis of his work, and he was adamant that being imitative was a sign of bad design:
‘Men cannot be honest while imitating the sentiments of others which they often neither feel nor understand.’8
J. Brandon-Jones, C.F.A. Voysey, A Memoir ‘Practice’
- The English Home, C.F.A. Voysey, British Architect, LXXXV Jan 27th 1911
- Studio vol.XXI, No. 94, Jan. 1901
- The Aims and Conditions of the Modern Decorator, Journal of Decorative Art, XV
Individuality, C.F.A. Voysey, 1915
- Ideas In things, C.F.A. Voysey 1909
- Individuality, C.F.A. Voysey 1915
C.F.A. Voysey, Individuality, London, 1915
- D. Simpson, C.F.A. Voysey: An Architect of Individuality, London 1979
J. Brandon-Jones, C.F.A. Voysey: Architect and Designer 1857-1941, London 1978
W. Hitchmouth, The Homestead, London 1994
S. Durant, C.F.A. Voysey, London 1992