C.F. Annesley Voysey : the man and his work

Introduction

"For fifteen years, between 1912 and 1927," says Dr Wendy Hitchmough [1], "Voysey's British reputation went through a period of dormancy." Then, in 1927, a "concerted effort" was made to revive it. RIBA organised a dinner to celebrate Voysey's 70th birthday, and a series of anonymous articles appeared in The Architect & building news. According to Hitchmough, John Brandon-Jones suggested that the author was H.B. Creswell. He presented Voysey as "a design hero and a harbinger of the Modern Movement ... eulogized his achievements and reiterated his opinions, setting the tone for future descriptions of the architect."

The following transcription retains the arrangement, spelling and punctuation of the original articles, together with their monochrome illustrations. Some additional information has been added in square brackets in both the main text and picture captions.


Part I (The Architect & building news, 21st January 1927, pp.133-34)

The first business of the portrait painter is to get his subject to sit, and the friend who, at the instigation of the Editor, has succeeded in subduing the extreme restiveness of Voysey at the approach of an interviewer can well sympathise with the painter’s difficulties. Voysey’s tenacity in avoiding capture was as obstinate in this as in some other matters his friends know of, and yielded finally to good nature on his part rather than to first-rate reasoning on mine. His final surrender was made in the following gracious words: “Why can’t you wait till I’m dead?” and the question being promptly answered the position was won; but it still remained to decide how to set about the job. Here, Voysey gave useful hints. “Write about what you don’t like. Criticise my work. Say how bad it is.” And so the matter was settled in a satisfactory way, for it would be impossible to interpret Voysey by the unctuous note of veneration with which accounts of living architects in the technical press have made us familiar. As an entirely personal matter, I can say that in reading such columns I am frequently affected as though I were listening to some sea-sick person miserably retching eulogistic phrases which have already been evacuated. It is typical of such writings that they represent the men they signalise as riding on the crest of the architectural wave, or even on the frothing apex of its breakers. Voysey, however, is like a rock among those successive seas: inveterate in his likes and dislikes, unyielding to any fashions of thought or of sentiment, unmoved by changing vogues, a man whose artistic convictions are at one with his spiritual ideals and identified with his whole attitude to life and to work; he remains complete and sufficient, staunch and immovable. He changes not; men may come and men may go, wars and revolutions along with them, but Voysey goes on for ever. This is well recognised by his friends, who find in him one of the most unaccommodating of mortals, who has long ago found clear answers to the questions that harass most of us throughout our lives, and who dwells in a compact impregnable system of his own. The inquirer may advance with wholly praiseworthy and amicable intentions upon the Voysey stronghold; the drawbridge goes down, the portcullis is raised, the castle is, by the owner’s invitation, explored when, suddenly, the visitor receives a stunning blow and is flung headlong from the ramparts to meditate that however friendly his reception, his fortress is Voysey’s undivided domicile and will give permanent shelter to no other human being whatever. These characteristics, it will be supposed, are the marks of a lonely man; but Voysey has probably more friends than acquaintances, and it is hard to imagine that he has one enemy in the whole world. I do not represent this last as in itself a merit, but as remarkable in one who is outspoken to the point of embarassment and who is no respecter of conventions nor of the persons who stand for them; and because the explanation is due to a characteristic of the man, namely, that he can express himself strongly to everybody without roughness and without wounding anyone’s feelings unless he so intends; and he never under any circumstances does so intend. If among his versatilities was included the power of being effectively articulate, his influence on current thought might be of the measure of the influence of his design on current architecture and the furnishings of buildings. “I cannot write,” he says. This is not true, but the shyness – self-consciousness and lack of confidence – which all writers know is with him an inhibition, and his utterances have been rare. For this reason, when he speaks, he is not readily understood; his voice is a new voice, his individuality a strange one: and thus, when he lately expressed himself in the public press, he was greeted with hoots by the modern cult, which neither reads the thoughts of others, nor thinks for itself, but bleats in unison with the flock that harbours it. With these to have courage and originality is to be a fool who does not know on which side his bread is buttered; to exhibit wit and a capacity for making luminous analogies is to confess levity and insincerity. Voysey suffers in the general fatuity induced by the Schools of Architecture, where to be trite and dull is a recommendation to minds which cannot be bothered to think or to feel, and which for the most part are bemused by the present-day impatience to gain money and by envy of those who by any means do so. Let it be remembered that Voysey, whether he agrees with all they have written or not, belongs to the school of thought of Ruskin, Morris, March Phillips, Lethaby and Penty, and it may be asked, is there any writer – excepting Geoffrey Scott – on an equal plane of capacity, literary skill, sensibility, or intellectual authority with these men and yet who is opposed to the ideas with which their names are associated? Small discernment is to be hoped from those who are unaware of the rout of their own prophet in the early chapters of “The Works of Man,” and Voysey is not likely to be hospitably received by those who call upon laymen to elucidate for them the meaning of architecture; but the fact that Voysey is supported by the whole body of thought of all writers who, in this particular field, are of any serious account entitles his views to as much attention as the fruits of them, in liberating fancy and replacing conventions by ideas in domestic design and furnishings, have won from all architects who now tread those paths. Both in his principles and in his achievements Voysey exemplifies a living thought and a fundamental truth, and it is the purpose of this writing to display those matters.

C.F.A. Voysey is the eldest son of the late Rev. Charles Voysey, Vicar of Healaugh, near Tadcaster, Yorks; who was deprived of his living in 1869 because as his son expresses it, “he believed in a Good God instead of an Angry One.” He was prosecuted for the heresy of denying the doctrine of an everlasting Hell, at the formal instigation of the Archbishop of York, who maintained an affectionate regard for the culprit throughout the proceedings, and afterwards. The prosecution was a cause célèbre of its day and the Vicar’s defence – a matter of heavy cost – was supported among others by Stanley, Colenso, Hines, Ruskin, Tyndal, Huxley and Darwin, many of whom were, or afterwards became, his personal friends. It was the old fight, staged in mediæval form, of religion versus dogma; and, as usual, dogma ceremoniously claimed the victory and religion won the entire field and more than it ever sought or fought for. As he could not be burnt at the stake the Vicar of Healaugh founded the Theistic Church, and in Swallow Street, Piccadilly, was for forty years a leading preacher of the day, still well remembered, whose sermons were weekly printed and distributed to a very much larger congregation. It may interest some readers, as it does his son, to know that an ancestral grandmother of the Preacher was a sister of John Wesley; and that the tradition of Wesley’s teaching has always been strong in the family and, as Voysey holds, inspired his father. That point must be of some significance when it is said that Voysey was throughout his boyhood an intimate companion of his father, and acknowledges a deep indebtedness to him. His sense of the matter is that he owes everything to his father; that all his beliefs and convictions are part and parcel of the fabric of his father’s thought and teaching. This early entrenchment with a complete system of ideas and precepts explains much of the obstinate firmness and tenacity of Voysey to the principles he stands for. What he was he is, and always will be. It need only be added that he was seven years old when he left Healaugh; was afterwards at Dulwich College for two years, and was then for eighteen months under the guidance of a private tutor. At the age of 17 he was articled to J.P. Seddon. This was in 1874. He was for five years a pupil in Seddon’s office where churches, vicarages, and, in particular, Aberystwyth University, occupied his attention. He seems to have made his capacities amenable to the discipline of authority in those days, for Seddon entrusted him alone with paint-pots in a Church; but the true Voysey expressed itself afterwards when his master left to him the design of a mural decoration in mosaics. My scrutiny of Voysey has been a searching one and I observed that this early exploit is a happy memory for the designer, not because it was his first executed design of the kind, but because two years after it was put up it was hurriedly pulled down by indignant authority which then for the first time discerned the true meaning of the symbolism employed in it, which represented Science tearing down Sacredotalism. The success of this early design is of no account, be it observed, to its author; its triumph for him is that it published to those who had eyes to see a denunciation of an opprobrious dogma the University espoused, and the glee with which Voysey recalls this exploit ignores the discomforture of the learned dons on finding the decoration they had bought and paid for had been grimacing at them behind their backs for two years. This is characteristic of Voysey. He pays dogma the unusual respect of being enraged by it, instead of laughing at it as he does at most other stupid things. If the Grand Praxis of the Kamtarist Church asked Voysey to design a carpet for the Sonoria of the Temple, depicting the Eternal Pink Porcupine diving to eternal bliss in the Sea of Grunk with a tralsk tied round its neck, Voysey would refuse. His conscience would not allow him to lend himself to perpetuating tenets which he abhored. Thus he has never designed a Church; he would consider it flagrant hypocrisy in him to do so; unless he believed in the symbolism to be embodied in it.

After his five years’ pupilage, Voysey remained as assistant in Seddon’s office for a year, then filled a similar post for a short term in the office of Saxon Snell, and afterwards helped George Devey for two years during which time Devey took James Williams into partnership. At the end of these two years Voysey was sent down into Northamptonshire to direct the building of two cottages by direct labour, when not only the manner of construction, but the organisation of the works and the keeping of accounts, was in his charge. At the conclusion of that work and at the age of six and twenty he took an office in Broadway Chambers, Westminster, and set up in practice on his own account.

 

Architect and Building News

In 1927 The Architect & building news was published by Gilbert Wood & Co., Ltd.

 

The Pastures

The Pasture House, North Luffenham
[Now known as The Pastures. Designed in 1901 for Miss G. Conant.]

Reference

1. Wendy Hitchmough, CFA Voysey (Phaidon, 1995), p.221.

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