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Tradition & individuality in art

This text is transcribed from document VoC3/1 in the RIBA Archives, "Voysey, C.F.A., Correspondence and personal papers, Box 3". It is described as "Draft of an unpublished essay", and is dated 2nd February 1923.

In fact, it appears to be Voysey's notes for a lecture given at the Art Workers' Guild on that day entitled “Tradition and (or versus) individuality in art” (source: The Art Workers’ Guild, 1884-1934, by H.J.L.J. Massé (1935), p.125.)

The text has been informed by the contents of Voysey's book, Individuality (1915). It is reproduced here exactly as found apart from editorial comments in square brackets.


There is much sentimental nonsense talked about tradition, because the term is loosely used & often understood as an expression of praise. Just as the term artistic is used as denoting something beautiful. We forget that there are good traditions & bad traditions. Good art and bad art, and countless degrees between the two.

May we not apply the term “tradition”, to any generally adopted mode? The mode or manner of speaking, writing, eating and working. All these have their traditional modes and are regarded as good generally, until some better mode is discovered, to take the place of the old one. Time must elapse before any mode becomes traditional, & many must follow it. It is the voice of the multitude. And often becomes a force of habbit [sic], that is followed without thinking. And for that reason a good servant, but a bad master. It is the outcome of collectivism & the antithesis to individuality.

We need to remember that perpetual progress is Nature’s universal law, and a quite perfectly logical deduction from the belief in a good Providence. Therefore if we are to try & harmonise with the laws of Nature, and help her to progress, we must leave the door perpetually open for progress, & welcome, (critically if you like), all attempts to improve our traditional modes & methods, whatever they be.

I can see the hair on brother craftsmen’s heads standing up, at the idea of altering the shape, say, of a traditional farmer’s waggon [archaic], or the barge. And the ritualist’s horror at any proposed change of mode, that disturbs the sentimental memory and associations of well conducted ceremony.

The feeling of resentment against the inovator [sic], is perfectly natural & right. Yet radical statesmen are necessary to the healthy growth of conservatism. It is the balancing of the two opposing forces, that we want to encourage, not the denunciation of either. The fond tenacity of old styles & the friendly welcome to new ones. Old materials and conditions & requirements are perpetually changing, and need altered modes to meet them. The spoon feeding of young architects, with foreign side orders, may keep up the sense of reverence for the past, but has proved a petrifying influence on the creative faculty of the student. The so called love of tradition is largely responsible for the deadly dullness of modern architecture, and the cure must surely be in the development of individuality. An individuality that involves spiritual culture. According to the Oxford dictionary Individuality is defined as, “separate existance [sic]; individual character”. As personal character depends mainly on what we worship, & what we love, you will understand why I say “an individuality that involves spiritual culture”. This culture will keep us humble & free from that selfishness, which leads to the bottomless pit of egotism.

Individuality let us remember is not individualism. The latter, the dictionary tells us, is excessive or undue attention to individual interests. It is very important to realize distinctly, the supreme difference between individuality & individualism. It is the difference between the subjective & the objective. Between loving & seeking universal fundamental principles, and glutton only feeding petty personal preferences, & fancies. It is thinking for yourself & reasoning for the reverence of ideals. The independence that refuses to be engulfed by the stream of popular feeling. The resistance to the bable [sic] of tongues that cry out for uniformity, tradition and a collectivism which is naught but practical slavery.

Individuality rightly understood, is the best possible help to unselfishness. It makes us recognize the right of every man to think for himself & work out his own salvation. It breaks down that hateful arrogance that assumes the ignorance or wickedness of particular sections of society. It forces us to see that all men are endowed with the same noble instincts & that our differences are due only to the degree of their cultivation. How then can we cultivate any of our God given faculties if we are to be driven like sheep on traditional lines and not allowed or encouraged to think for ourselves.

Page 1 of manuscript

The first page of the manuscript, housed in the RIBA Archives.

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 18th October 2019