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Voysey as a designer of furniture

In common with earlier British architects such as William Kent, Robert Adam and his beloved Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, Voysey aspired to integrate his furniture creations into his interiors or, at the very least, to make these practical forms harmonious for modern living. Voysey’s furniture makes a distinctive and distinguished contribution to turn-of-the-century architect/designer interiors. His designs, materials and production methods epitomise the Arts & Crafts Movement's swings between tradition and modernity, and between individual craftsmanship and machine production. In the later 1890s and early 1900s, the most fertile period for Voysey as a furniture designer, his desire to create a gesamtkunstwerk had parallels with the approach of contemporaries such as Hugh Mackay Baillie Scott and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

While Voysey furniture was often supplied for houses and interiors that he designed, some contemporary archival photographs can be misleading as not all commissions were ultimately furnished as the designer would have wished. What Voysey did regularly supply, however, was fitted furniture; examples of this remain in situ at The Homestead (see Wendy Hitchmough, The Homestead : C.F.A. Voysey (Phaidon Press, 1994), for example pp.45 and 46).

Voysey's furniture has what he himself described as a ‘sense of proportion and puritanical love of simplicity’. To this, with regard to his largely untreated oak chairs and cabinets, should be added a careful selection of fine quality timber, and the engagement of able workshops to execute his subtle designs to the highest standard of manufacture. Makers closely associated with Voysey, and whom he trusted to execute his carefully detailed drawings, included Frederick Coote and Frederik Cristen Nielsen (both in London), and Arthur Simpson of Kendal.

Apart from special commissions, Voysey produced a relatively limited range of furniture designs, and certainly recycled these familiar pieces for different patrons. Evidence for this is to be found in contemporary archival images, where the same models appear repeatedly. His well-known armchair with his leitmotif heart in the back (Donnelly, fig. 248), features in many room settings, but also varies somewhat in precise detail and size; the chair also exists in variants without arms.

Little furniture designed by Voysey dates from before the 1890s, with his most productive period being from around 1895-1910, corresponding with his greatest success as an architect. The idiosyncratic ‘Swan’ chair (Simpson, p.74, fig. C.1), was designed in the mid 1880s, but perhaps not made, for W. Ward Higgs, until around 1896. Variants of the familiar chairs with hearts in their backs, often with rush seats but sometimes with leather, were produced throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, as were high-backed chairs (for example, Donnelly, figs. 201, 228 and 274). Case furniture ranges from the famous brass mounted ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’ cabinet, around 1899 (Donnelly, fig. 231), through the plainer oak sideboard from the Essex and Suffolk Equitable Insurance Company, around 1906 (Donnelly, fig. 276), to such modest creations as a low chest made around 1900 (Donnelly, fig. 243). The unusually elaborate metalwork on the ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’ cabinet is probably by Voysey’s regular collaborator Thomas Elsley & Co. Metalwork, as modest as elongated knobs on drawers or pretty pierced keys, was integral to the design of Voysey’s furniture.

Tables vary from the imaginative circular tables made by Nielsen around 1903, with characteristically chamfered legs, meeting at a central sphere before turning through ninety degrees and arching to the underside of the top (Donnelly, fig. 256), to the designer’s own plain drawing table (Donnelly, fig. 240).

Voysey designed pieces for many purposes. The range includes simple boxes, and elaborate writing cabinets (see Donnelly, fig. 214, for a ‘desktop case’ recently placed on long term loan to the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh), a gilded oak mirror, plain toilet mirrors, and all manner of bedroom furniture. He also produced designs for commercial manufacturers, such as the London firm J.S. Henry. Most of his furniture, including his piano cases (for Collard & Collard), has minimal adornment and little colour. This applies to some of his clock cases too, but in some of these Voysey breaks out into the use of rich materials, such as ebony and ivory (Donnelly, fig. 259), as well as joyful colour. In the famous clock case design (see Anthony Bernbaum, ‘Voysey’s aluminium clocks’, The Orchard (no.5, 2106), pp.68-77) we see this austere form not only in oak and aluminium, but also painted with cypress trees in front of a river landscape at sunset, and inscribed ‘Time & Tide Wait for No Man’. On this object (Donnelly, figs. 217 & 218) we find a bridge between Voysey as the ‘puritanical’ furniture designer, and the creator of playful textiles, wallpapers and carpets.

There is an increasing literature for Voysey’s career, not least through the pages of our own journal, The Orchard, but for furniture the Society would particularly recommend the following:

  • Duncan Simpson, ‘Furniture’, in John Brandon-Jones and others, C.F.A. Voysey, architect and designer, 1857-1941 (Lund Humphries, 1978), pp.67-95.
  • Max Donnelly, ‘Furniture’, in Karen Livingstone et al., C.F.A. Voysey: Arts & Crafts Designer (V&A Publishing, 2016), pp.152-229.

Martin Levy, January 2019

Page last amended 25th July 2020