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The Architectural review special issue on Voysey of 1931


Preliminary notice

Foreword, by Sir Edwin Lutyens

1874 & After, by C.F. Annesley Voysey

Charles Francis Annesley Voysey : the architect of individualism, by John Betjeman


A notice appeared in the Architectural review in 1931:

An exhibition of the work of C.F.A. Voysey

Architectural review, (vol.70, 1931), p.87

To those who have studied the recent history of architecture it has always seemed extraordinary that C.R. MacIntosh [sic] was never recognized during his lifetime as a leader of European architectural thought. MacIntosh is dead, but his master, C.F.A. Voysey, is still very much alive, and it is with great pleasure that we are able to announce that an exhibition of his furniture, fabrics, and architecture has been arranged by Messrs Batsford and The Architectural Review. It will last for a fortnight, and will be held at Batsford's Galleries, 15 North Audley Street, London, to celebrate the achievements of a great English architect. It is hoped that all those who are able will go to this exhibition; the next issue of The Architectural Review will contain an article by John Betjeman on C.F.A. Voysey's life work.

Betjeman (not then knighted) was the Assistant Editor of the journal at the time. Its next issue, published in October 1931, contained articles by both him and Voysey, together with a contribution by Sir Edwin Lutyens. This issue, the exhibition at the Batsford gallery (instigated by Betjeman, full transcription available), and a series of articles published in The Architect and building news in 1927, probably by H.B. Cresswell, were instrumental in reviving Voysey's reputation after a period in which his work was out of fashion (although widely plagiarised).

Nevertheless, Dr Wendy Hitchmough notes that Voysey "must have gritted his teeth at some of Betjeman's observations", given that he disliked the work of Mackintosh and did not accept that his own work prefigured the Modern Movement as Betjeman suggests. Hitchmough also draws attention to the presumably significant omission in Voysey's own article of Morris and Webb from the group of leading proponents of the Arts & Crafts style. (W. Hitchmough, CFA Voysey, (Phaidon, 1995), pp.18 and 221-2).

All three pieces from the 1931 issue of Architectural review are transcribed in full below, but without the illustrations that accompanied the original.

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by Sir Edwin Lutyens

Architectural review, (vol.70, 1931), pp.91

Two surprising events in the eighties of the last century relative to my early architectural observations were, firstly, the advent of Randolf Caldecot [sic], who found a new simplicity of expression in the buildings he so wittily portrayed, and, secondly, the work of Charles Voysey, who was building – it was evident – what he liked.

Fresh and serene he created that with which you could laugh – a very different thing from much of the moribund building then prevailing which one laughed at – or was it – so long ago it seems that we really cried. The “hearted” shutters, the client's profile on a bracket, the absence of accepted forms, the long sloping slate-clad roofs, the green frames, the black base, and the black chimney pots, with the white walls clear and clean! No detail was too small for Voysey's volatile brain, and it was not so much his originality – though original he was – as his consistency which proved a source of such delight. Simple, old-world forms, moulded to his own passion, as if an old testament had been rewrit in vivid print, bringing to light a renewed vision in turning of its pages, an old world made new and with it, to younger men, of whom I was one, the promise of a more exhilarating sphere of invention. This was Voysey's achievement – Fashions, as they ever have and ever will do, come and go.

Hail! then, to those men, amongst whom Voysey stands, who give new kindling to the old flames to warm and cheer conviction in a living future.

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1874 & After

by C.F. Annesley Voysey

Architectural review, (vol.70, 1931), pp.91-92

In 1874 the architectural profession was divided into two professionally antagonistic bodies. One called itself Gothic and the other Classic, and both were equally contemptuous of the other's style. Styleism was rife. When a client called for a design the first questions asked were: What style do you want? Next: What period of that particular style? Where is, and what is, the site like, and what the nature of the soil and aspect, were questions of secondary importance. Given the style and the period, books were drawn from the library shelves and approved examples of details were chosen; a chimneypiece or chimney, an oriel, a door, or a window from several books. Such things as these were copied and welded together and like the ingredients of a Christmas pudding equally hard to digest.

Very slowly and almost imperceptibly a revolt began to develop. We must remember that this revolt against styleism and pursuit of utilitarianism was in the womb years before, and was the child of Science and the Prince Consort. The 1851 Exhibition awakened the idea of utility as the basis of Art. All that was necessary for daily life could be, and ought to be, made beautiful. This utilitarian principle began to be put in practice when William Burgess [sic], E.W. Godwin, A.H. Mackmurdo, Bodley and others regarded nothing in or outside a home as too small to deserve their careful consideration. So we find Burgess designing water-taps and hair brushes; Godwin and Mackmurdo furniture; Bodley, like Pugin, fabrics and wallpapers. Then soon came the Art Workers' Guild, the aim of which was to bring craftsmen and architects of every description together, to compare their difficulties and explain their several crafts and peculiarities. All of which motives leading to a more and more practical attitude of mind than to a theoretical one. Styles and Conventions were slighted. All this time be it remembered, the world was growing more and more materialistic, less religious and spiritually emotional. Prosperity was in the air. And the classical frame of mind was beginning to be formed.

Norman Shaw was a leading rebel, although still under the influence of the dying “picturesque” of which George Devey was the most extensive practitioner. He worked for the aristocracy from the Queen downwards: and certainly there was no man alive at that time with a bigger domestic practice. Asked by his client to join a house-party, he would make the most fascinating, catch-penny sketches while dressing for dinner and present them during dessert, charming everyone, but getting them worked out by clerks who had to make all detail on the traditional lines of a bastard Jacobean period.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to point to any one man as the leader of the emancipation from Styleism. It is more likely than not that the practical point of view given by Science strengthened materialism and set fancy free.

It is quite true many architects and many craftsmen were influenced by Ruskin, also A.H. Mackmurdo, Norman Shaw, and Bodley, but the influence of certain individuals does not necessarily start a revolution. It is the mental atmosphere that makes men of strong Gothic sympathy use the round arch instead of the pointed, which in the writer's experience really happened.

At this same period, Mackmurdo's furniture, first exhibited in the Inventions Exhibition, 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. And soon there were signs that the rising generation were rebelling against accepted methods and styles as such, and were asking: Can we not do without cornices, mouldings and other furbelows? Once set free from the tyranny of convention, what such a frame of mind may lead to, causes many a tear today – as all extremes are bad.

It was by Mackmurdo that the journal entitled “The Hobby-horse” was started, in collaboration with Professor Selwyn Image and P. Horn. For those days it was beautifully got up and printed on good paper, before Morris came on the scene. The ordinary Press were not accustomed to notice artists' work, so “The Hobby-horse” was only ridden by its sympathetic professional brethren, and consequently short-lived as a publication. But the extent of its influence was impossible to measure.

Artists have seldom been conspicuous as great readers. Reading and reflection seem to take a back seat when structural forces are on the warpath – in spite of the fact that reflection is the food of fancy and imagination. Genuine creative genius was sterilized by the competition methods generally adopted; when the assessor's name was known to competitors, who strove to design up or down to the known predilections and prejudices of the assessor.

Individuality was becoming more and more discredited. And the methods adopted by architectural schools that were started, besides killing the pupilage system, led to a stereotyped curriculum, which forced the student to study Classic rather than English Gothic.

Collectivism was beginning to crush individuality. Happily this tendency was not felt by Bodley, Bentley, Brooks, Butterfield or Oldrid Scott, whose work to the students of 1874 and onwards was, like Shaw's, Godwin's, Burgess's and J.D. Sedding's, watched with greedy interest.

Soon after the building of the Law Courts by Edmund Street, it became generally understood that Gothic was a broad principle and did not depend on the imitation of familiar Gothic detail. It was a system of designing from within outwards, in contrast to the Classic, which was designed from without inwards. In other words, the Gothic architect would allow practical requirements of accommodation, plan, aspect and prospect to govern his elevations, while the Classic architect thought first of his façade. Symmetry and balance were tyrannical laws to him. So his plan often had to give way to the elevations.

To explain the fundamental construction of these two different types of mind, namely the Gothic and the Classic, we must recall the fact that the Gothic spire, pinnacle, and pointed arch, like the spearhead, lightning, and angularity, are all associated with the ideas of conflict, aspiration and movement. While the dome, the round arch and the sphere, globe or ball are associated with luxury, ease, repose and amusement. Most games are played with balls.

A severe climate favoured the Gothic, while a mild and sunny one induced the Classic. It is easy then to see how the commercial prosperity and peace, pervading the period we are now considering, down to the commencement of the Great War, led the public to express itself in a Classical, rather than in a Gothic, manner. This tendency was accelerated by the greatly increased facilities for foreign travel.

The fascinating freshness of foreign architecture completely obscured the importance of climatic conditions, and so delicate Classic mouldings found homes in sunless towns. Broad expansive roofs, as Ruskin pointed out, were a pleasant suggestion of protection to a people of a rainy clime, now alas! ignored.

Later on, the schools found axial planning and symmetrical design less complex and varied than Gothic, therefore more easy to teach. The standardization of details was found to save a great deal of trouble and could be easily committed to memory.

The Art Workers' Guild started in 1883 in Norman Shaw's office, and its principles and objects caused the Arts and Crafts Exhibition to exist and flourish. As long as J.D. Sedding, A.H. Mackmurdo and William Morris were, with others, working for crafts as handmaids to architecture, much good work was done.

The last striking instance of the interest in this combination is to be found in the fact that in 1923 when Sir Aston Webb was President of the Royal Academy of Arts, for the first time in the existence of that body, an Arts and Crafts Exhibition was held under its auspices in Burlington House.

The period when Norman Shaw was in full practice was certainly more Gothic than Classic, and lasted in Baillie Scott, Lutyens, and the two Barnsleys, Andrew Prentice, Guy Dawber, Mallows and others, with domestic practice. But very soon after Shaw's time the Classicism of the Georgian type became fashionable and corrupted even the Great Lutyens.

Commercial and public buildings were before domestic architecture in manifesting the feeling of the time, as men of known business ability were chosen to do the work because the business man shunned the artistic crank. All artists being regarded as cranky in a thoroughly materialistic age.

It was early in the 20th century that architecture seems to have been completely divorced from Gothic. Temporary dwelling-places took the place of homes, that is to say, something to go from rather than go to, were the outcome of the motor-car. And difficulty of finding domestic servants led to the building of flats. Death duties and local councils' powers to interfere with property owners' vested interests, all combined to kill home building, and flats, shops and commercial buildings had to be made to pay commercially: their aesthetic qualities being quite unimportant.

Let us, however, sing a Te Deum over the fact that in this dark age we had a Bentley, a Giles Scott and a few others producing lovely Gothic work.

When Gothic architecture ceased to be fashionable, away went that lovely quality so often to be seen in the old towns of Holland, where all the houses are different, though sympathetically respecting each other, like gentlemen. Now an angry rivalry, or a deadly dull uniformity, is the dominant feature of our street architecture.

This, indeed, is a commercial age gone game mad.

Facilis est descensus Averni.

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Charles Francis Annesley Voysey : the architect of individualism

by John Betjeman

Architectural review, (vol.70, 1931), pp.93-96

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.” Now, what Ruskin was to Scott probably Voysey is to the “traditionalist.” Yet it would be a mistake to consider either Ruskin, Voysey or Corbusier as particularly “dated”; the dates remain with Sir Gilbert Scott and his modern equivalent. The other three 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”, and the extravagancies of new architecture at the end of Victoria's reign are considered more of a joke than they really are. Later, when considering the influence of Voysey on European architecture, we can estimate him and his school at their true worth. To understand the architecture and decorations of Voysey it is necessary to know his principles and life, for the man and his work are closely allied. The originality of much that he did is due to the originality of his character, just as the works of Wren and Soane bear the personal imprint of the architect and make them stand shoulder high above the work of contemporaries. It is significant, too, that Voysey should consider A.W. Pugin one of our greatest English architects, for that bold man with his sailor's clothes and outspoken opinions can be compared with Mr Voysey, who has an original and pleasing way of dressing and whose opinions are as brave and outspoken.

Charles Francis Annesley Voysey is the son of the famous Reverend Charles Voysey, who was removed from the Church of England for preaching against the doctrine of hell fire, and founded the Theistic Church. He is descended from the Duke of Wellington, and as has been written of one of his younger brothers: “He perpetuates on his gentle visage the Iron Duke's nose and in his gentle nature the Iron Duke's will.” Yet he is probably prouder of the blood of Wesley. What his father preached to thousands in London, Mr Voysey has interpreted in stone and colour. He was articled for five years to J.P. Seddon, one of the more prominent competitors for the New Law Courts, and in 1882 he started practice. From the first his work was original, yet it would be a mistake to call it revolutionary. As he stated, in a letter he wrote this year to Country Life, upon the signing of their buildings by architects, it would be presumption to put the name of one man to a house. Architecture is a growth, and all knowledge of material and construction is the product of generations of experimental architects. Therefore, the house at Bedford Park (fig. 12) which he built in 1888, and which must have surprised even the modern Mr Norman Shaw, is the product of necessity, for Voysey allowed his materials to dictate to him. As he himself writes: “... there yet remain certain elements which change, not like certain kinds of stone, which by their nature have dictated certain forms of architecture, as for instance, stone found in large sizes lead to the lintel and column treatment, while smaller stones called for the arch. These are what we may term enduring qualities. … The Traditionalist is shocked by what he calls the mixture of styles. Fitness does not appeal to the mind already wedded to definite modes of expression. The fact that the two forms of arch (Tudor and Classical) were seldom, if ever, used together in ancient times, blinds his eyes to the fact that altered conditions of modern life may demand the consideration of requirements non-existent in previous ages. The individualist is always ready to cast off the shackles of a bygone time, and is willing to meet the needs of the present while still holding fast to all enduring qualities.” And again, “Certain conventions, dictated by a complete knowledge of material and needs, would naturally lead to the use of many familiar forms. The principles of the lintel and the arch, which are based on material qualities, must for ever remain true principles. But if we cast behind us all preconceived styles, our work will still possess a style, but it will be a living, natural and true expression of modern needs and ideals : not an insincere imitation of other nations and other times.” The sincerity of Voysey's architecture refutes all those slurs which might be cast upon it as deliberately unusual. The heavy sloping buttresses by which most of his later houses may be distinguished were the products of necessity for they are there to support a wall only nine inches thick. The bedroom windows high under the eaves of his houses are protected from rain, and by being high “give a feeling of security to the bedroom.”

Voysey's architectural principles have remained the same from the time he started. It is not, therefore, necessary to give a detailed history of his career. In 1924 he became Master of the Art Workers' Guild with which he had long been associated. With characteristic sincerity and thoroughness he learnt all the crafts connected not only with the building but also with the decoration of the house. He followed the principles of William Morris. He even carried them further. He must be the only architect who has designed everything, down to the very spoons and forks, for his buildings.

After building nearly two hundred houses with such care, he explained his principles in a book, Individuality (Chapman and Hall), which was published in 1915. It is a work of more importance than any detailed biography could be, for it expounds the religion of the architect and the consequent reverence with which he made his buildings.

To him aesthetic and moral values are inseparable, and since he is an individualist, he considers the training of character to be of far greater importance than any knowledge of styles and books. He therefore deplores the foundation of architectural schools and the disappearance of the personal contact between architect and pupil. “Many architects of today say in effect 'Let us have an established mode, a national style of architecture. Save us from the individual who, if left alone, will shock our prejudices, and violate our established ideas. The standard of past ages is good enough for us and must be kept up, even at the sacrifice of living men. What care we for the development of human faculties for future good, by the side of dead records of dead men. Let us make the mode of a man or a period the fashion … .' It is the old trades union tendency to provide one dead level of mediocrity in order that the feeble may fare as well as the famous.” Mr Voysey is as high a Tory as the old Duke of Wellington. And in architecture we need a Tory party of this sort to cope with the bolshevism of “traditionalists”; to battle with Mr Voysey's materialistic town councillor who says: “ 'Is not this competitive design something like St Paul's?' and the general standard, however low, is accepted when an individual standard whole heavens higher would be regarded with fear and trembling.” In fact, as Voysey says, the architect today, to save his pocket, must often lose his soul – if it has remained through a “course of architecture” at a school. Nor without reason does Voysey attack modern “traditionalists” for their subversive methods. “The concrete form with them must precede the final conception, while others of the individual type will evolve the final concrete form, out of thoughts and feelings quite intangible – building, as it were, the material out of the spiritual, from within outwards, rather than from without inwards. This last type must, of course, be affected indirectly by memory of existing things. But there is a wide difference between the influence of memory not deliberately referred to, and the determined espousal of a pre-existing design.”

Naturally in the individualist world in which Mr Voysey would have us live there are varying tastes, and although we may not admire everything he designs we can admire the principles on which he does his work. Nor can so long a life of lonely fighting have passed unrecognized. Although we see many of his decorative details reproduced ad nauseam in tea shop, waiting room and monster furnishing store, the simplicity to which he – as much if not more than William Morris – leads us back from the complex and futile revivalism in which many architects still remain, has made itself felt at least on the Continent. I remember asking Mr F.H. Newberry, who taught Charles Rennie Mackintosh at the Glasgow School of Art, from whom his pupil derived his inspiration. And I learned that it was from Voysey, who was at that time starting practice. Mackintosh did more probably than anyone else for a healthy, simple architecture abroad. So Voysey has not fought in vain. An intelligent visitor to Mr Voysey's Exhibition at Batsford's Galleries during the first two weeks of this month will see that his productions are not mere reproductions of Walter Crane and Morris, nor have they anything in common, as the ignorant suppose, with Beardsley and the twining horrors of debased art nouveau, but they are attempts at evolving a truly traditional architecture. Voysey differs from modern individualistic architects in that he evolves from the Tudor period since he considers Classical architecture “foreign”, whereas they continue from the architecture of English Georgian. But Voysey, like other truly modern architects, is strictly traditional. In common with them are his attempts to evolve from tradition, not to copy, and to him “Collectivism is the Coward's Cloak.”

[The caption to the illustrations which accompanied the original article but are not included in this transcript, included this comment by Betjeman:] The architect's opinions on the treatment of the interior of a house are well worthy of study. “The very poker at your fireside becomes of interest to you the moment you recognize the sentiments of its maker. Maybe its maker's mind was absorbed by greed and apish imitation for greed's sake; then you will find no grace, no truth, no dignity in your poker. It will be an ill-bred poker, and you will feel no joy in it … So, too, with all the objects of daily use; if we train ourselves to look for signs of moral quality we shall do much to encourage true culture and bring spiritual joy out of material mire.” The quotation is from Individuality, by C.F.A. Voysey.

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Page last amended 15th June 2016