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The art of today

This is a transcription of the first published work by C.F.A. Voysey of which we are aware.

It originally appeared in The British architect (18th November 1892), pp.367-368 & 377, which explains that it is a paper read before the Winchester Art Society (presumably the Winchester Fine Arts Society, now known as the Winchester Art Club). A version was also published in the Hampshire chronicle (vol.120, no.6449), p.3, under the title 'The practice of art to-day in our own country'.

By 1892, Voysey had been in practice as an architect on his own account for eleven years, was married, and was living and working at 11, Melina Place, Grove End Road, St John's Wood, London. He had already completed several major commissions, including The Cottage in Bishop's Itchington, 14 South Parade in Bedford Park, London, and 14 & 16 Hans Road, London.


THERE are certain tendencies that appear to hinder the natural growth of good taste and poetic imagination, and consequently the production of good art; for instance, the habit of insincere admiration, the blind observance of fashion, the fear of being thought eccentric, or wanting in good taste, all of which lead to a blind unreasoning following, often due to a more or less natural and healthy consciousness of ignorance. And the mountebanks and art manufacturers have taken advantage of this condition of things, and have written books, and published rules, for the guidance of taste – rules, for the most part, based on their own performances; and whenever these preachers of art have been actuated by a commercial spirit, the result has been the paralysis of the artistic sense of all those who have come under their influence. For example, a certain shop or a certain decorator advertises, or, in figurative language shouts loudly, makes use of some fresh trick to attract public attention, and in some cases succeeds in putting forward much that is good. Then the public, like sheep, not staying to discriminate, pronounce all to be good. Or, may be, a periodical takes up an artist, and the supposed sanctity of being in print at once gives weight to the utterances of the prophet. Mrs So-and-so pronounces such and such arrangements to be right, and so the quack prescriptions are handed on, with no individual intelligence, and the faithful herd flatter themselves that they are devoted to art and furthering the spreading of it.

Next the “antique” mania – old instruments, bearing many symbols and relics of the past, perfectly fit for their original purpose, bits of history in fact, but neither intelligible nor useful under modern conditions; old china, too, much of which is both unfit for its purpose and ugly in form and colour, are all sanctified, admired, and adored, which, but for their age, would not be tolerated anywhere. In this way artistic thought and expression are not fostered or encouraged. Next to the tendency to insincere and unintelligent admiration is the disproportionate admiration for executional skill. This natural love of material excellence is perfectly right and proper, but should not be placed before the purity and nobility of motive, or beauty and richness of thought. For example, a perfectly finished object, such as a silver cup, all beautifully chased with utterly meaningless ornaments, is as much admired, and more, than a modern silver pot, with a poem writ and modelled rudely on its surface. We see in shop windows tons of gold and silver chased work having nothing to tell us. The delight in it, if there be any, is only sensuous, and similar to a baby's delight in a candle flame. This love of executional skill has puffed up many a human machine, hundreds and thousands of whom are turned out of our schools yearly. Acres of canvas, acres of wood and stone have been spoiled by painters and carvers, who, under such an influence, never were and never would be artists.

What do our art schools do to encourage artistic thought or a bursting admiration for the exquisite simplicity and fitness of nature?

Anatomy is studied that painters and sculptors may be glorified, and not because the knowledge is required to immortalize truly the holy aspirations of the human heart. This scholasticism is truly deplorable, and our Royal Academy is not doing all it might to encourage the higher and nobler qualities of the human mind. Are there in any of the summer exhibitions at the Royal Academy as many as a score of pictures the subjects of which are worth painting at all?

One other tendency is to act and believe as if artistic power was only given to some, that “genius" (whatever that may mean) is necessary to make a great artist. I believe this view is utterly false and mischievous. The faculties of artistic feeling are common to all men. Just as the religious instinct is. But the faculty must be exercised and stimulated, or it becomes feeble and paralyzed. I do not suppose that all men are equal – far from it – some have more delicate perception than others, and some are colour blind, which is perhaps only a kind of deformity due to generations of neglect, or some similar cause to that, which makes some deaf and some dumb. But the faculty I contend is present in every healthy person. Only foster it, and make its life and exercise a pleasure, and much good will result. By exercise I do not mean the indiscriminate hoarding and production of beautiful things, but rather such intelligent thought and analysis as shall enable us to see and delight in the simple beauties already existing in Nature around us. I believe that originally men were artistic intuitively, that their art was quite unconscious. What they produced was beautiful, and fit, and in conformity with Divine law. Then came a time when men awoke to a sense of beauty, and they began, like many of the semi-savage races of to-day, blind to beautiful harmony of form and colour, to adopt crude and ugly things – childish and unfit. The Manchester manufacturers are at this moment printing linens of the crudest colours in violent contrasts to send out to South Africa, and elsewhere for the natives, who buy them, and like them, although their native fabrics are to us most charming examples of beautiful design and workmanship. I think their artistic sense may be said to be awakening. We Englishmen are in a more advanced state of consciousness. We are conscious that there are Divine laws of art to be learned, understood, obeyed, and ultimately loved.

When people use the expression “Oh! that’s only a matter of taste,” it is well to remember there is a law behind all matters of taste, and that the expression is only another way of saying we are ignorant of that law. Well, if this be so, the study of art is raised whole heavens above the level of a mere jugglery to please the fancies and provide sensuous delights for men. It is evident that law and order must be the foundation of our work. How, then, can we attain this foundation? Shall we go abroad and see the monuments men have built, or shall we rather search for the motives and laws under which they worked. The popular trick of flying from corner to corner on the earth, folio in hand, collecting photographs and measuring and sketching, has done incalculable harm. Our national character and taste have become like our architecture, a combination of stolen forms, the results of other men’s brains – dead and devoid of spirit. It is no use studying beautiful results without studying the causes that produced them and the reasons for thelr being.

What is the result produced on and by the thousands of students who throng our National Gallery on students days? Is not the good pitifully small? But we will not condemn the action of these students altogether, for their follies are not vicious. They think they are on the right road, and all honest effort must be production of some good. But is this really the right way for them to become artists? If the theory of the unconsciouness of the art of the past ages is correct it must follow that to create art consciously and of our own free will we must saturate our minds with Nature’s laws by devoutly studying Divine things rather than by imitating human things. I do not mean that we must shut our eyes to all human efforts, but that we should seek for inspiration and guidance from the purest examples of Nature. If this be so, we are at once relieved from all restrictions of style or period. We live and work in the present with laws for ever revealing fresh possibilities.

Tradition or precedent alone can no longer justify any work of art. Art must depend upon the producer. Our hearts and minds must be healthy and noble, or our work will be sickly and ignoble. Whatever examples we may be trying to follow, whatever be our surroundings, this must ever be true. The Creator must be superior to the created, and if we once get this principle deeply rooted our study of art becomes infinitely simplified. The myriads of conflicting schools and catechisms fade away into insignificance, and we begin to feel the invigorating sensation of being alone with Nature and our own intelligence. Once emancipated from the slavery of styles we are forced into perpetual questionings – why do I like this or that? Why should one line excite and disturb, and another compose and soothe. This handmaid “why” should be ever with us; and although we cannot always find a sound answer we may be very sure that the search for a reason will in itself be a very healthy frame of mind, and will keep us from doing much that is foolish. The natural sequence to this desire for reasonable justification is a sense of fitness – fitness which is Nature’s most sublime law.

To produce any work of art whatever we must, then, exercise our reason and our sense of fitness, and acquire as far as possible a complete knowledge of our materials and tools, and the result will at least be natural, healthy, and alive; not always what would please us best, sometimes quite ugly, but yet hopeful. Unfortunately our standard of fitness and beauty is not derived from a knowledge of natural law, though it ought to be. We judge things from a very prejudiced and narrow point of view. Our habits of mind are unhealthy, often through living too well – I mean seeing too many dainty dishes. Our enjoyment is with Italian palaces, not with daisies and dandelions. We have no simplicity, our eyes are intoxicated by the glare and glitter of many nations. What is more common than that the simple, honest effort after fitness and grace should provoke a smile? The fact is we are over-decorated. We lack simplicity, and have forgotten repose, and the relative values of things beautiful are hopelessly confused and confounded. You may enter any drawing-room of cultured society of to-day; what strikes one first but confusion? Where is there breadth, dignity, repose, simplicity, or true richness? Is the character of the head of the house at all evident? Is there any mark of nobility? No. Money is the only idea symbolized. Believe me, the hoarding of pretty things is no sign of good taste; it is vanity and vain glory.

If, then, we are interested in art matters can we not do much, each individual in his own house, instead of painting boughs of apple trees across our door panels, and covering up every shelf with petticoats of silk, spreading photographs and ash trays broadcast over every inch, begin by casting out all the useless ornaments, and remove the dust-catching flounces and furbelows. Have only such pictures as you can hang in a comfortable position, and from which you can derive continued real enjoyment and benefit. Reduce the number of patterns and colours in your rooms. Have nothing but what has a given purpose to fulfil, and then only the best and truest you can find of its kind. Eschew all imitations – things which are intended to deceive and delude. Strive to produce an effect of repose and simplicity; and although the first shock at the change will seem unbearable, after the reaction has worn off, the true decorative purpose and value of things will be found to stand forth with increased power of charm, and concentrated richness will revel in a field of simplicity. It will be at once felt that decoration on these lines requires each individual object to be good of its kind. That is so, and Heaven be praised! But if there are no means by which to procure beautiful things, the case is more difficult, and many sacrifices have to be made; for we can no more have beautiful homes without sacrifice of some kind than we can have beautiful hearts.

Painters, sculptors, craftsmen of every kind, it is on you all, equally, that I would urge these principles, for no healthy art can exist in unhealthy surroundings. Artists do not deserve the name, who can live unmoved and undisturbed when surrounded by ugliness. And making no effort to sweep it away. Making beautiful pictures, or gazing on such dreamily, is a sensuous kind of condition that profits little. In asking myself why certain effects are enjoyed more than others, I find associations are in a great measure responsible, and thus the same efiect will produce many distinctly different impressions on different minds. So in order to judge justly of the value of a given effect we must divorce ourselves from our associations and apply natural laws. But this, again, is not wholly reliable, for a given effect may be so strongly associated with given ideas that the effect itself has no meaning or force without the associations.

We cannot, then, sit in judgment on any school without great risk of injustice. Our whole energy must be directed to find, understand, and obey all natural law for ourselves, quietly and diligently. Surely a constant examination and watchfulness of our motives, and anxiety to be simple and true, will go a long way to prevent many popular abuses.

The short lease system of house tenure has been fruitful in fostering vice, viz., we are led to confine our art in gold frames, and grow to live happily with ugly and uncomfortable houses – houses filled with foolish and useless forms, bad proportion, and sickly colour inside and out. We collect pots and pictures, fans and fancies, thinking to whiten our sepulchre. Ladies with talent for using "Aspinall" come to the rescue [see note]. Ornamentation is pitchforked into our homes without a moment’s thought of restraint. We have a language of ornament and nothing to say; not that we have not brains and hearts, but we have all been charmed and taken captive by the language, and have fed our vanity on our own creations. When art becomes the expression of deep and noble feelings then will it become full of life and vigour.

I think we may feel encouraged by the thought that it is not necessary that artists should be crammed to overflowing with the knowledge of the productions of foreign nations; but that they should each use their own God-given faculties, and if their thoughts are worth expressing, the means sufficient for their expression will be, and always are, at hand. Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaketh.


Aspinall's Enamel Ltd was established in Mitcham in London in 1891, continuing the business of paint and enamel manufacturing begun by H. E. Aspinall in 1885. The company promoted the use of its products in the most curvaceous, highly decorated images.

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For other writings by and about C.F.A. Voysey, some of which are available here in full, see our complete bibliography.

Page last amended 12th September 2021