From his Arts and Crafts roots, did Voysey sow the seeds of Modernism?
Source: George Douglas
Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857-1941) is an architect whose reputation has fallen between two stools, largely due to an issue of classification: was he or was he not a Pioneer of the Modern Movement? He lived long enough to rule on the question himself, firmly dissociating himself in a letter to the Architects’ Journal in 1935 from the ‘square box, roofless buildings we now see, unfortunately, not only in our own country’. He went on, ‘I make no claim to anything new. Like many others, I followed some old traditions and avoided others.’ That element of selection, however, can be highly significant. His disclaimer did not prevent Nikolaus Pevsner from devoting a lot of space to Voysey the following year in his Pioneers of the Modern Movement: From William Morris to Walter Gropius. While he emphasises Voysey’s traditionalism, he comments on one of the finest domestic designs of this almost exclusively domestic architect – Broad Leys in Windermere dating from 1898 – ‘Here, one sees clearly, was a mind equally averse to the picturesque tricks of the Shaw school and the preciousness of Art Nouveau. From this centre bay with its completely unmoulded mullions and transoms, from these windows cut clean and sheer into the wall, access to the architectural style of today could have been direct …’
Already in AR March 1931, when Pevsner was still a lecturer in Göttingen, John Betjeman had raised the ‘Modern’ issue in the somewhat confusing opening of his article ‘Charles Francis Annesley Voysey – The Architect of Individualism’, as follows: ‘Once it would have been as risky to praise the work of Voysey to, say, Sir Gilbert Scott, as it would be today to praise Le Corbusier to a modern “traditionalist”… Yet … [Ruskin, Voysey, Le Corbusier] are the true pioneers and their messages differ but little. Only in England is Voysey not taken at his true value, for he is dismissed as Art Nouveau or even “arty”.’ Apart from the extended but anonymous study in the Architect and Building News in 1927, this was the first promotion of Voysey as architect since before the First World War, and indeed he had built nothing in the interval. His practice was in decline from 1910 and never recovered from the stoppage of the war. Unlike Lutyens, for example, 12 years his junior, Voysey was not prepared or able to move with the rising tide of classicism in the Edwardian period and the demand for his austere abstract smaller country houses dried up, although he continued to be able to sell wallpaper designs.
‘Voysey’s influence as a designer flourished with that widespread motif of interwar suburban housing, the two-storey curved bay window topped by a gable’
Betjeman, like Pevsner after him, distinguishes Voysey from Art Nouveau, though Osbert Lancaster used a caricature sketch of a Voysey house to illustrate the Art Nouveau section in Pillar to Post (1938). While Voysey’s career may have withered, it was arguable that his influence as a designer flourished – in the form of that widespread motif of interwar suburban housing, the two-storey curved bay window topped by a gable, seen especially on semi-detached houses, which seems to owe its origins to another of Voysey’s finest houses, Norney, Surrey of 1897. Pevsner comments, ‘from the historian’s point of view it remains no small feat to have created the pattern for the vast majority of buildings carried out over a period of thirty years and more. What was not copied from Voysey, needless to say, was what impresses us today as his most progressive motifs – the long-drawn-out window strips and the completely bare triangles of the gables …’ Indeed it is probably easier now to see the merits of the interwar bay-windowed semi (before they had almost all lost their original windows) than it once was: the lighter feel than their Edwardian predecessors and the attractive well-lit front rooms, arguably both due to Voysey’s example.
Meanwhile, at a more serious level, Voysey’s influence had arguably sown the seeds of the nascent Modern Movement by its spatiality and radical simplification not only through publication on the Continent but also through his clear influence on others, for example on Charles Rennie Mackintosh (11 years his junior) whose influence on the Continent was for a time considerable. Despite his 1935 letter, some of Voysey’s theoretical writing does indeed read like proto-Modernism. In his article ‘1874 & After’ (AR March 1931), alongside Betjeman’s, he claims that the ‘revolt against styleism and pursuit of utilitarianism … was the child of Science and the Prince Consort. The 1851 exhibition awakened the idea of utility as the basis of Art … At this same period [after the founding of the Art Workers’ Guild in 1884], Mackmurdo’s furniture … showed how the machine should be recognized by the designer, and led many in his day to revolt from over-decoration and strive for the straight, simple and plain.’ A book on Voysey by David Cole published this year is entitled unequivocally The Art and Architecture of CFA Voysey, English Pioneer Modernist Architect and Designer.
Perrycroft, Colwall, Herefordshire (1893)
Norney, nr Shackleford, Surrey (1897)
Broad Leys, Windermere, Cumbria (1898)
The Whitwood Institute, Whitwood, Castleford (1904)
‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences’
Debating Voysey’s contribution to the Modern Movement, however, should not prevent one from looking at the work itself and appreciating it on its own terms. Here it is the spatiality as well as its inventiveness – more covert than in a more demonstrative designer such as Mackintosh – that are most compelling. A key detail – for which Voysey was mocked – is his use of buttresses: his thin 9” rough-cast solid brick walls were reinforced by tapering external buttresses both at intermediate points but also at the corners – where it is hard to argue that they performed any structural function. Architecturally, however, they did extend the wall out into space beyond the corner, turning it into a plane. Likewise his massive roofs – seldom of a pitch less than 55 degrees – extended well beyond the walls: they too were planes, not flat in terms of pitch, certainly, but flat in their surface usually of graduated green slate, their planar quality emphasised by their extension. Their gutters were then supported on a delicate array of metal bracketry. The almost total suppression of detail, for example in the flat stone window surrounds and mullions, and the emphatic horizontality, contribute to the feeling of repose, to which Voysey passionately aspired. The closely spaced balusters of his stairs form a semi-transparent screen dividing space. The suppression of detail leads to forms reading as ‘pure’ – square or, in the case of arches, round – and hence to a sense of abstraction, which may then be enriched by a patterned wallpaper or fabric to Voysey’s design, rather as a monk in a bare monastery might read from a richly illuminated manuscript.
The spirituality of Voysey’s work does indeed seem almost monastic and finds an echo in the Minimalism of our own day. Parallels might be found too with the work of Ernö Goldfinger – an architect avowedly first inspired in 1914 by the pages of Das englische Haus (1905), Muthesius’s study of English domestic design at the turn of the century in which Voysey was published, and ready to call himself an ‘Arts and Crafts architect’ because of his insistence on the expression of the qualities of materials: they shared a love of oak and the rough texture of Goldfinger’s bush-hammered concrete might be compared to that of Voysey’s rough cast. Goldfinger’s projecting cross-walls might be compared spatially to Voysey’s buttresses, and Voysey’s statement that, ‘True architectural beauty, to my mind, must be wedded to structural function’ was one that Goldfinger might well have echoed. Both were also fond of bay windows, pushing the internal space out to the exterior. So Voysey set a standard of spatiality, materiality, and serenity that, though his own career was short-lived, may continue to provide inspiration.
Illustration by George Douglas