Great British Architects: C.F.A Voysey (1857-1941)

C. F. A. Voysey (1857-1941)

The architect and designer Charles Voysey was a key figure in the English domestic revival. His distinctive strain of modest-sized house reflected his highly individual artistic vision and versatility as a designer, as well as the influence of Shaw, Nesfield and Devey. He became the fashionable architect for industrialists, politicians, artists and writers, yet his high-minded architectural principles rejected any stylistic tricks or whims of fashion. His houses appealed because they were both picturesque and progressive.

Carefully sited in the landscape and created with close attention to the design and craftsmanship of every detail, they combined elements of the cottage vernacular with a simplicity of decoration and a rationality of plan that was refreshingly new. ‘We cannot be too simple,’ he believed, and his interiors, conceived in harmony with furniture and fittings, convey a feeling of quiet domesticity.

Through his influence on architects such as C. R. Mackin-tosh, Voysey is seen as a vital link between the Arts-and-Crafts and Modern Movements, yet his houses spawned a lesser breed of dwelling that proliferated from the 1920s: the mass-produced suburban villa.

Life and character

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Voysey was born near Hull, but, in 1871, moved with his family to London after his father, the Vicar of Healaugh, was expelled from the Anglican Church for heresy (he later founded the Theistic church). Educated partly at Dulwich College, Voysey worked for the Gothic Revivalist J. P. Seddon from 1874 to 1879, and then for two years with George Devey, before setting up his own practice in 1881.

Devoutly Christian, and right-wing, unlike his Socialist Arts-and-Crafts contemporaries, Voysey was something of a paradox. His architectural principles, influenced by ideological certainties inherited from his father, were defined by ‘uncompromising clarity and reforming simplicity’, yet he was also a masterly patternmaker; his pieces incorporated playful touches, such as his favourite heart motif, and he was inspired by the spirit and forms of Gothic architecture.

Intensely private, he was a skilful publicist of his designs, exhibiting and publishing them in Britain and abroad. Voysey was proud of his physical resemblance to his forebear John Wesley and exuded an air of austerity and single-mindedness, yet he was benign and warm-hearted by nature, with ‘a lovely sense of humour’. His marriage to Mary Maria Evans produced three surviving children, but ultimately failed, and, from 1917, he lived alone in reduced circumstances until his death at 83.

Architectural career

Voysey’s architectural practice took off slowly and his reputation was initially founded on his fabric and wallpaper designs, the first of which sold in 1883. His first executed building was The Cottage, Bishop’s Itchington, Warwickshire. Work picked up in the 1890s, including a clutch of compact studio houses in London and the country. Many of his best-known houses are grouped in the Lake District, Surrey, or, as with his first significant commission, Walnut Tree Farm, of 1890, and Perrycroft, described in The British Architect as ‘a long, white-fronted cottage… [that]… for comfort and simple artistic expression it would be difficult to surpass’, with views of the Malvern Hills.

In 1898, Country Life championed Voysey’s unpretentious weekend retreats as the ‘ideal cottage in modern garb… [which]… manages to make utility the basis for aesthetic expression’. Examples include Lowicks, for the tea heir E. J. Horniman, and Greyfriars, for the novelist Julian Sturgis, both on the Hog’s Back in Surrey, and his own house, The Orchard, within the commuter belt at Chorleywood, Hertfordshire. Lowicks, in particular, demonstrated his skills at orientating a house and fitting it seamlessly into the landscape.

On a grander scale, another holiday home that embodied the domestic virtues he so admired was Broadleys on Lake Windermere, for the colliery owner A. C. Briggs. Voysey believed that a house ‘should receive its guests with composure and dignity’ and he revived the symbolic importance of the central hall. More boldly experimental were Norney and New Place in Surrey of 1897, both main residences with an element of formal grandeur, where Voysey juxtaposed curves and geometric motifs to achieve a sense of drama. Vodin in Surrey, 1902, celebrates the refined simplicity of his mature style, at the same time as displaying his admiration for Pugin and the English Gothic tradition.

Of the few non-domestic buildings, Voysey’s 1902 factory for Sanderson, clad in glazed brick, excels as one of his cleverest designs, with its wavy roofline and piers doubling as ventilation shafts. By 1914, following a group of smaller houses in the previous decade, domestic commissions had all but dried up. There were some war memorials and unbuilt Gothic-inspired designs, but, increasingly, he was dependent on pattern designing, and some of his most memorable work in this field dates from the 1920s. In 1940, a year before his death, Voysey was awarded the RIBA’s Royal Gold Medal for Architecture.