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Voysey's buildings and the Arts & Crafts movement

(By Jack Warshaw, based on a talk given to an Architectural Association conservation course)


This paper deals with the architecture of C.F.A. Voysey in the context of the English Arts & Crafts of which he was perhaps the greatest force, measured by his place in history or his contribution to British and European domestic architecture and design. Others have already set him on his pedestal, but, at the conclusion of my research, I found his place much higher than I imagined it would be at the beginning.

There is still a need to revisit what survives of his greatest living legacy - his houses - and to look at them in the context of what he and his contemporaries tried, each in his own way, to do - to make a revolution. Most of them are now past their centenary, and, while many continue to inspire, they also continue to decay and erode. Sometimes one can see them dying by a thousand cuts.

Space does not permit more than a brief look at the work of the more important Arts & Crafts architects alongside Voysey, but it should become clear why we are unlikely to see anything like them again, why they failed to achieve their high purpose, yet left us a rich, though still barely appreciated, body of work, and an approach to design and building which has infused the culture of successive generations, and why the conservation of the houses of the Arts & Crafts may be among the most difficult of goals to achieve, but must nonetheless be pursued, on specially formulated principles.

Voysey chose the most difficult path for an artist. Serious, obsessed, even fatalistic in his quest for eternal truth, he was no tilter at windmills. He was an intensely practical man, whose actions and behaviour were as carefully ordered as his mind. Yet he never lost the child-like simplicity, humour, honesty and directness which are his hallmarks and give his buildings their appeal. There are no tricks in a Voysey house. They are always what they appear to be.

He is invariably described as an individualist, because that is how he described himself. For him individuality began with faith in a beneficent, omnipotent and loving power, who created mankind for the primary purpose of growing individual characters. Work which grows out of a noble character takes on that character itself. So, where Voysey is concerned, it is necessary to look not only at what he did, but at why.

The task of conserving these houses now is also a difficult path. They need to be lived in and to tell their story; yet if the physical evidence for the story has been distorted or obscured then the story itself may not be remembered or understood, becoming itself a distorted fragment with little of its intended meaning. The same problem confronts any important house of any period, but is infinitely greater where, as with many of the Arts & Crafts designs, decoration, details, furniture and fittings were integral; where the designs survive and the thought behind them was both conscious and usually well documented.

Voysey's houses became the embodiment of the fairy-tale castle or the cottage ideal. They have been praised by many and derided by a few, including H.S. Goodhart-Rendel, who said:

"When I was a child I was excited by fairy-tale houses having enormous roofs and practically no windows, by doorways to Wonderland having arches so low that an ordinary person would need to eat one of Alice's reducing cakes in order to pass under them, by tables whose legs not only went down to the floor but sprouted upwards toward the ceiling, by patterns made of cockyolly birds inspecting with surprise square trees slightly smaller than themselves; but when these phenomena pranced out of picture books into reality my excitement gave way to distaste."

But they were always noticed, not just because their whitewashed walls, massive chimneys and sloping buttresses make them stand out. It is the mastery of proportion and composition, economy of space and material, grammar of colour and ornament, planning and superb craftsmanship which sets them apart. Above all, it is the totality of the experience, the complete and harmonious integration of interior and exterior, every part of which has been thought out and designed as if for the first time.

The Arts & Crafts, emerging as the artistic and cultural arm of a new social and political awakening toward the end of the 19th century, held out, through the teachings of Morris, Webb, Lethaby, Crane and others, the promise of freedom from the tyranny of historical styles, and a new English, or Scottish, vernacular, based on functional requirements, naturalism and honest craftsmanship. Where other periods or architectural groupings are described in terms of style the Arts & Crafts is invariably dubbed a movement. Morris was its high priest, Webb the standard bearer, Shaw the elder statesman, Lethaby and Crane the radical missionaries. The brotherhood of the Art Worker's Guild was its broad church, with the portraits of its saints and apostles hung on its walls. Their names read as national heroes: Mackmurdo, Ashbee, Prior, Mackintosh, Ricardo, Baillie-Scott, Newton, Winmill, Holden, Townsend, Smith and Brewer, young Lutyens, Oliver Hill and many others.

Yet, paradoxically, its archetypal expression was that of the puritan Voysey, and its significance cannot be measured purely in terms of architectural distinction or artistic merit, great though they are. His impact upon the work of others, many of whose output was much greater, changed the course of house design in Britain where, though often debased and superficial, elements of the Voysey style could appear in almost any suburb in the country, and sometimes still do.

Because Voysey saw his work as speaking directly to the heart or spirit, the axiom that architecture can only be fully appreciated through direct physical experience takes on an even deeper meaning with his houses.

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The Arts & Crafts movement

The origin of the Arts & Crafts movement can be traced to the True principles of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), the Seven lamps of architecture and other writings and speeches of John Ruskin (1819-1900), and of course the revolutionary energy and poetic vision of the larger-than-life William Morris (1834-1896). More than any other individual, it is Morris whose name is synonymous with the movement, whose work, philosophy, organising ability and powers of persuasion made him both its prophet and driving force, drawing the succeeding generation of artists, craftsmen, architects, writers, philosophers and sometimes politicians to devote their lives to his vision of the earthly paradise. Morris never became an architect, but the father of modern conservation had plenty to say about what new buildings should be like, springing from the unpretentious vernacular rather than from any conscious style. His elegant plea could hardly have been a more exact description of a typical Voysey house:

"... simplicity of life, even the barest, is not misery but the very foundation of refinement. [The choice between] a sanded floor and white-washed walls and the green trees and flowering meads and living waters outside; or a grimy palace with a regiment of house-maids always working to smear the dirt together so that it may be unnoticed."

Morris not only considered architecture to be the "true democratic art," but that "everything must either be a work of art or destructive to art." To him, the very existence of art revealed that man's work can involve pleasure; therefore, extending the idea of art increased the pleasure in life. There were other strands that were to intertwine. Morris had been a pupil of G.E. Street, as had Philip Webb, then Richard Norman Shaw. Shaw (1831-1912), architect of New Scotland Yard and Bedford Park, author of Old English and Queen Anne revival, was the most celebrated and successful of his generation. His office was the cradle of the movement, with five of the six organising committee members of the AWG: Ernest Newton, E.S. Prior, Mervyn Macartney, Gerald Horsley and W.R. Lethaby (1857-1931), Shaw's chief assistant, Webb's principal acolyte and biographer, Voysey's exact contemporary, who shares in his influential Architecture, mysticism and myth (1891), some thought with Voysey when he says:

"Behind every style there is an earlier style in which the germ of every form is to be found ... all is the slow change of growth and it is almost impossible to point to the time of invention ... . If we trace the artistic forms of things made by man, to their origin, we find a direct imitation of nature. ... [The aim of the new art] is to aid life and train it, so that beauty may flow into the soul like as breeze."

By 1890 the Guild had 150 members, about half of whom were architects.

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In 1882, Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo established the Century Guild. Mackmurdo had trained under James Brooks who, he said:

"[Designed] every single incidental object and ornament which went into the furnishing and decoration of his building. But the execution of these designs must needs be delegated to other hands, and here was the difficulty. The repeated trials, the constant failures in getting these designs carried out with any degree of artistic sympathy, or fine sense of craftsmanship, well nigh drove the man mad."

Six years older than Voysey, Mackmurdo had studied under Ruskin, travelled with him in Italy, taught at his Working Men's College, and became skilled in several crafts. Voysey later stated his admiration for a number of architects including Shaw, Butterfield, G.O. Scott and Sedding, and frequently acknowledged his debt to Morris, Bodley, Mackmurdo and others. Another of his friends was E.S. Prior (1852-1932), next door to whom, in St John's Wood, the Voyseys lived for a time, and who was to the movement what Fauvism was to contemporary painting. Curiously, as John Brandon-Jones observes, Voysey never acknowledged Philip Webb (1831-1915), although many regard Webb's Red House as the first true Arts & Crafts building and a model for the great flowering which followed, and points out that Webb's approach to architecture seems the nearest to Voysey's. Webb, like Voysey, he declares, "would throw up a commission rather than compromise." Furthermore, both would produce brilliantly simple plans, and both steadfastly resisted the temptation to indulge in architectural theatrics. Lethaby described him as:

"... rather tall, with a kindly, but stern face. ... Webb would always have the best of everything, though his needs were carefully restricted. ... All art to Webb meant folk expression embodied and expanding in the several mediums of different materials. ... 'Architecture,' he said, 'is building traditionally,' and 'Ornament which is not the work of free artists is slavery'."

He would threaten clients with reducing the size of the drawing room if they were mean with space for the servants. Little wonder that Morris would introduce Webb as "the man who taught me Socialism."

Voysey's first commission was a cottage at Bishop's Itchington, Warwickshire, but his reputation for being an uncompromising pioneer of the Modern movement, a label which he denied, came from his first London commission, the Tower House of 1891 at 14 South Parade, Bedford Park. Gradidge remarks that he rejected his first, red-brick-and-tile design (the predominant materials of Bedford Park) "for something much more offensive. ... everything is designed to suggest that this house is different from its neighbours." Hard up against the Norman Shaw Old English or Queen Anne there is a stark white box with little windows set in stone dressings, and a low hipped slate roof, topped by a spirelet. The people of Bedford Park thought it quite reactionary, but the architectural critics said that its cost, less than five hundred pounds, "takes the breath away," and called on Voysey to build "ten thousand cottages about this cost ... for the happiness of the greatest number is the best rule of modern times. "

Voysey's architectural philosophy owed much to Ruskin, whose three rules of production were:

  1. "Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary in the production of which Invention has no share."
  2. "Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end."
  3. "Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving record of great works."

Equally, Voysey described himself as "the last disciple of Pugin," who had written in True principles of pointed or Christian architecture:

"The two great rules for design are these:
first, that there should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction or propriety;
second, that all ornament should consist of the essential construction of the building.
The neglect of these two rules is the cause of all the bad architecture of the present time."

In Voysey these became the twin driving forces of fitness and individuality. "All art is", he said:

"the manifestation of thought and feeling. ... The nobler ideas and emotions manifest the highest arts, quite apart from technical excellence. An architect may encourage ... deception ... or ... respect for nature, ... making [his building] as good as it looks, not fraudulently in imitation of something more magnificent than his means can allow. Better frank simplicity than sham elaboration and pretentiousness. Fitness is a divine law ... not only material suitability, but moral fitness ... then will follow such qualities as simplicity and repose, which ... will affect our architecture not only in general design and planning, but in every detaiI. If your client does not understand this, it is your duty to inspire it in him ... Market values obscure the view of those qualities which go to purify and strengthen character ... We must love all beauty - beauty of character, beauty of sound, sight, smell, touch and taste-with a passionate desire that is ever ready to make sacrifices for attainment. This burning love of the beautiful is really at the bottom of all true progress."

In designing interiors, Voysey advised:

"We must suit our design to the natural character of the material. ... derive pleasure from the observation of fitness and proportion - arranging our furniture and ornaments so that each has its share, nothing being crowded, and every article helping to make its neighbour's virtue more, not less, pronounced. The essence of good proportion is brotherly love. Nature ... furnishes with an abundance of the most soothing colour - green; she uses her red most sparingly ... never allows her colours to quarrel. Her purple trees, with their gossamer of delicate spring green, dwell lovingly with the blue carpet of the hyacinths. Harmony is everywhere. "

Many were influenced by Voysey's designs, some were inspired and others stole and debased them. The more well known Arts & Crafts men of the slightly younger generation after Voysey to be influenced by him included M.H. Baillie-Scott (1865-1945), A.D. Smith (1866-1933) and C. Brewer (1871-1918), W.F. Cave (1863-1939), C.R. Mackintosh (1868-1928), E.L. Lutyens (1869-1944) in his early work, and C.R. Ashbee (1863-1942). From 1904, Barry Parker (1867-1947) and Raymond Unwin (1863-1940) planned and designed many houses in Letchworth, the first garden city, in the Voysey manner. An interesting eclectic approach by W.D. Caroe at Vann from 1904 uses the Arts & Crafts feel for traditional materials and form to link a medieval house and barn in the creation of a complex yet rational house, now also known for its magnificent gardens.

There were few women architects during this period, but a great many in crafts, painting, literature and social reform (such as May Morris and Margaret MacDonald.) A number of designers, including Voysey, sought in their planning and use of materials to free women from the drudgery of housework and the kitchen, not surprising if one considers that clients were increasingly being drawn from the middle class who could not commission large houses with provision for servants. Some more conscious social reformers like Ebenezer Howard and his family lived in Letchworth in a form of communal housing, designed by Parker and Unwin with self-contained accommodation, but a shared kitchen and other facilities.

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The artistic house

A building and all its contents and surroundings, drawn by a single hand, could ensure both aesthetic unity and controlled experience. Few architects had the strength to deal with all this personally, but Voysey aimed for, and often got total artistic control, could design almost anything and cope without delegating because of three factors: his largest commissions were relatively modest houses, his striving for simplicity and his re-use of forms and components once perfected. But it was no kit of parts, assembled differently for each job. Each house was an individual work of art. Take Broadleys and Moorcrag for example, the two houses on Lake Windermere built at the same time almost within sight of each other when Voysey was at the peak of his popularity. Thought by many to be his finest works,

"... nothing of this date on the continent to come up to their standard. The future and the past blend effortlessly indeed." Pevsner continues, "Their language is uninistakable and yet they are different."

Broadleys has yielded a copy of Voysey's original specification which explains his methods and the importance he attached to various elements very well. Of interest is one of the last entries:

"Provide and fix on 9x9 stone sleepers 2 oak rain water butts with good strong tap to each about 3 feet 6 diameter and 4 feet or 4 feet 6 high painted green 4 coats outside with black hoops and twice tarred inside. The position of these tubs to be determined by the Architect."

The Voysey interior is best exemplified by his own house, The Orchard, Chorleywood (1899), which the Voyseys only occupied for five years - "the only one of my houses I should care to live in," he said. His description of 1901 is interesting for largely ignoring its "artistic" qualities:

"The site of the above house is ... 400 feet above sea level and about ten minutes' walk from Chorley Wood Station on the Metropolitan Line. [At the other end of the line was Voysey's office at York Place, Baker St.] lt is situated in an old orchard in extent about two and a half acres. ... The ground is surrounded on three sides by very high hedges. ... cowslips, primroses, buttercups, snowdrops, violets, orchis and honeysuckle grow wild in their season. ... Under the lavatory there is a cellar. ... This allows of easy access to all pipes from the lavatories and bathroom over. The w.c. on the ground floor is built sound proof, the w.c.on the floor above is exactly over, and only the stupid local by-laws prevented the soil-pipe being carried through the two w.c.s in a straight line. ... they had to be twisted and turned to the outside, thanks to the unpractical theorists who frame these regulations. ... The rooms throughout the house are only eight feet high, and with their deep white frieze have an abundance of reflecting surface. ... The hall fireplace will keep the whole house warm in severe weather. ... From the south windows Chorley Wood Common is to be seen over trees, high hedges and ditches and not a house or building of any kind will ever rise to mar the view. Nightingales, larks, linnets thrushes, blackbirds, wood pigeons, and even foxes deign to keep company with the little white house."

Voysey's next house, Prior's Garth, Puttenham, Surrey (1899), illustrates the Voysey principle that a good idea should not be wasted - it was actually designed for a site at Bexhill-on-Sea - and the consequences of successive ad-hoc repairs and adaptations on such a buiIding.

Dixcot, in North Drive, Streatham, London, was executed by Walter Cave more or less to Voysey's design after the client, Walter Essex, Voysey's wallpaper patron, or rather his wife, rejected his second design in favour of the first. The question is, why did he do a second design at all? The answer lies in the dates of the designs.

The White Cottage, Lyford Road, Wandsworth Common, was built in 1903 and only changed hands in 1983. This is the only house for which a complete set of working drawings has been recovered. Voysey's objective was thoroughness, clarity and accuracy. The main plans, sections and elevations are to half-inch scale and details of joinery, stonework and ironwork are full-size. Voysey used a then-standard colour coding system in his drawings to show the different materials clearly: orange for brick masonry, blue for stone, yellow for timber, purple for plaster, red for tiling, and so forth. In this case, the colour, with a note on sheet no.16, reveals that between October 13th and 22nd the roof covering was changed from tiles to Westmorland slates - Voysey had got his way! Another point of interest is that the 1907 addition was anticipated. It is shown on sheet no.16, the main design sheet, in plan and elevation, and a straight joint is indicated on the outside wall of the drawing room to allow for the doorway.

Garden Corner on Chelsea embankment was entirely redesigned and fitted out internally by Voysey for E.J. Horniman in 1906. Much of it survived until about 1978 when it was converted to offices for Aukett Associates. While some of the features remain, the character has probably been irreversibly lost.

Lodge Style in Bath was Voysey's last house in England, and is still an enigma because it was completely different from anything he had done before. The strangest feature of this superbly detailed Gothic bungalow, enriched with carving and symbolic sculpture, is the hipped roof crashing into the squat tower as if some ancient building had been added to over time. Pugin had done the same thing at his own house more than 60 years earlier, so it is interesting to speculate whether Lodge Style was a tribute to Voysey's master.

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Voysey considered himself a traditionalist, and a conservative, but his individuality and artistic nature made a radical of him. It is perhaps not surprising that near poverty befell the man who lived by such a creed as this:

"If in our work we express a love of truth, we are not expressing ourselves, but the ideas and sentiments common to all good men. The same may be said of dignity, grace, restraint, simplicity or magnificence and generous plenty. All these are proper objects of thought common to mankind and the fit subjects of architectural expression. ... If we are asked to produce anything which conscience pronounces to be wrong, we must refuse emphatically, and be prepared to suffer for such refusal. ... how full all architectural expression is of the thought and feeling of the country and time of its production, proving how little value there is in that which is purely our own, and that only noble thoughts, ideas and feelings, to which we can all aspire are of lasting value."

Hermann Muthesius, a Prussian architect commissioned by his government to produce a rational approach to German housebuilding, published the immensely influential Das Englische Haus in 1904, giving Voysey a place in it second only to Shaw. His work and influence, together with that of Mackintosh and the Glasgow group on the continent, strongly shaped the development of early continental modernists like Berlage in Holland, Hoffmann in Austria, Olbrich and Behrens in Germany and others.

When Voysey died, on February 12th 1941, John Betjeman paid tribute and Pevsner (both later founders of the Victorian Society) marked out his place in architectural history:

"The Voysey of about 1900 was the leading European representative of the stage in architecture and design following that of Morris, influence on Mackintosh and Walton in the north is evident, that on Baillie-Scott and Ashbee in the south hardly disputable; with Muthesius's help it created the cottage-style in Germany and Holland. ... he never regarded himself as the great artist whose genius must be respected and accepted without querying. He built what was to be useful and enjoyable, that was all. Hence the undated perfection of the best of his work. ... his [pattern] designs were so perfectly balanced between stylization and love of nature that the best of them have, to my mind, never been surpassed. Voysey believed in a humane, homely, honest life, in simplicity with domestic care and comfort, and in leisure judiciously and pleasurably spent amidst trees and flowers. ... the essence of his work and his personality does not belong to our age but to an age gone for ever."

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Simplicity: the beginning and the end

The Arts & Crafts movement was, say its detractors, backward looking, to medieval craft and pre-industrial values. On the other hand, it was driven by the contemporary pistons of democracy, libertarianism, and romantic socialism. With no less an objective than a better life for all, it became submerged, unfashionable in a system driven by profit, privilege and fear. Few Arts & Crafts men and women practiced after the First World War. Yet, somehow, the flame lit by these pioneers still smoulders, and with renewed national interest in architecture, may yet burn more brightly. The Architect's journal has referred to recent work by architect David Lea as "connecting with the golden thread of English Architecture, back through Voysey to Morris and Ruskin, searching for the spirit of our age rather than offering mere parodies of the past." The best of the inter-war suburbs and, more importantly, the garden cities and cottage estates, are living models.

Despite a society which so values empire-builders, creators of large and impressive works and achievers of material success, is it Voysey, symbol of sincerity in small but exquisite works, caring only for character and integrity, who touches deeper emotions and creates a more enduring bond? If so, I think Voysey himself would feel his purpose fulfilled. His work not only changed tradition, it entered tradition, in the everyday details of millions of homes, in the freshness which transcends successive fashions, in understanding that the purpose of a house is to bring out the best human thought and feeling, in its realisation of Morris's conception that "everything must either be a work of art or destructive to art", and in his legacy that simplicity is the most valuable and elusive of gifts.

Jack Warshaw B.Arch DipTP AADipCons RIBA RTPI IHBC FRSA

This paper was first given in June 1989. It emerged from my AA conservation thesis. I would like to acknowledge John Brandon Jones, whose wonderful stories, collected material , boundless knowledge and generosity help me do justice to Voysey and his houses.

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For works by and about Voysey, see our Bibliography page.

Adams, S., 'Arts & Crafts', in Encyclopedia of decorative styles (Quintet, London, 1988)
Anscombe, I. and Gere, C., Arts & Crafts in Britain and America (Academy Editions, London, 1978)
Benton, T. and Millikin, S., Art nouveau 1890-1902 (Open University Press)
Danaher, K., Ireland's vernacular archtecture (Mercier, Cork, 1975)
Davey, P., Arts and crafts architecture (Architectural Press, London, 1980)
Dickinson, F.R., Do it yourself by choice or chance, unpublished autobiography, collection of London Borough of Sutton Library.
Gradidge, R., Dream houses (Constable, London, 1980)
Grogan, A., Standen, guide to the house (National Trust, 1977)
Insall, D., Kelmscott Manor and its repair for the Society of Antiquaries, reprinted from "Momentum." ICOMOS
Kornwolf, J.D., M.H. Baillie-Scott and the Arts & Crafts movement (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore and London, 1972)
Masse, H.J.I.J., The Art-Workers Guild, 1884-1934 (Shakespeare Head Press, Oxford, 1934)
Muthesius, S., The High Victorian movement in architecture (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1972)
Naylor, G., The Arts & Crafts movement (Studio Vista, London, 1971)
Parry, L., Textiles of the Arts & Crafts movement (Thames & Hudson, 1985)
Pevsner, N., Buildings of England series (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1951 onward)
Pugin, A.W.N., The True principles of pointed or Christian architecture (London, 1841)
Richardson, M., Architects of the Arts & Crafts movement (Trefoil, London, 1983)
Ruskin, J., Complete works (London, 1903)
Scully, V., American architecture and urbanism (Praeger, New York, 1969)
Service, A., Edwardian architecture (Thames & Hudson, 1977)
Service, A., ed., Edwardian architecture and its origins (Architectural Press, 1975)
Shaw, G.B., Ruskin's politics (Ruskin Centenary Council, Oxford, 1921)
Sullivan, L., The Autobiography of an idea (Dover, New York, 1956)
Thomas, S. and J., The Simple spirit (Pleasant Hill Press, Shaker Town, Ky., 1975)
Thompson, E.P., William Morris (Merlin, London, 1977)
Warshaw, J. and Cluett, D., Little Holland House, guide to the house (London Borough of Sutton, 1974)
Weaver, L., Small country houses of today (Country Life, London 1909)

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Page last amended 8th February 2022