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“My work was never popular ...”

On 17th November 1927, a dinner was given in honour of Voysey's 70th birthday by the President and Council of the RIBA in the Hall of the Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers in Little Trinity Lane in the City of London. There were eighty guests.

Speeches were given by Walter Tapper (President of RIBA at the time), E.J. Horniman (philanthropist, politician and client of Voysey) and Walter Essex (businessman, politician and source of work for Voysey).

A certificate to mark the occasion was awarded to Voysey, who gave a speech of thanks. The speech is transcribed below with its original spelling and punctuation, as published in RIBA journal (vol.35, 26th November 1927, pp.52-3). Voysey alludes to his differences with RIBA over architectural education and training – he supported the pupillage system through which he had himself entered the profession. He had never joined the organisation (but was elected a Fellow on the nomination of the Council in 1929).

The first Painters' Hall was destroyed in the Great Fire of September 1666 but was rebuilt by 1670. In 1941 the Hall was again destroyed by fire, this time resulting from enemy action. The present building was opened in 1961.

Voysey's speech

“To hate the sin and yet love the sinner must assuredly denote a noble mind, especially when that heterodox sinner has persistently rejected the honours and privileges of membership of your Institute, for no other reason than that he has held strong views on architectural training at variance with the prevailing custom (though greatly improved of late) and believes with Ruskin, who said ‘That knowledge is got by travel – but wisdom by staying at home.’ Therefore let us never forget ‘It is love, it is love that makes the world go round,’ just as much as through everybody minding his own business. All feebleness, faults and wrong feeling fade together beneath the warm rays of human affection.

“The freedom to work out one’s own salvation, coupled with the sympathy and friendship of brother craftsmen, is a very great blessing. But it makes one reflect how difficult it is to say what is one’s own creation, while it is easy to say what is not.

“I invite you to recall the conditions of our profession prevailing in 1874 (when I was articled). The man whose influence was then most potent and widespread was John Ruskin. Styleism was still the dominating principle. When a client came to order a house, the main question was what style, what period? Not where is the site, and what the aspect and prospect or the materials of which it was to be built? We never dreamed of making a drain plan – that was always left to the contractor. But fixing the style led to the choice of books to be consulted. A door from one, a window from another, and so on. But, thanks mainly to Ruskin, pioneers arose to set us free; men such as E.W. Godwin, A.H. Macmurdo, J.D. Sedding, Norman Shaw, Bentley, Bodley, Burges and others, all of whom gave devoted attention to detail. And nearly all designed stained glass, wall-papers, fabrics and furniture of every kind.

“Many there were who kindled the revolt against over-elaboration and the debauch of decoration, which perhaps led some of us to excessive puritanical simplicity. The increasing use of machinery straightened the ‘curvey’ lines of furniture, and the public were quickly beguiled into the delusion that simple things must be cheaper than elaborate ones. Do they yet realise that the exact opposite is the truth?

“It is impossible to measure the influence of personal contact with brother craftsmen, many of whom I should like to name, were it not invidious to do so.

“I am not here, however, to lecture on the history of my time, but I refer to these matters merely to make clear that I am deeply conscious of my good fortune in finding myself here to enjoy the kind things that have been said, the hospitality given, and the honour you have bestowed. And also that I remember the circumstances of my time, the example of others, and above all the generous friendship and encouragement of brother architects, have been the real cause of my presence here, and for these things I shall give most grateful thanks to my dying day.

“Ruskin said, ‘The giving of praise was the greatest of charity.’ For such I now thank you with all my heart.

“One moment more of your kind patience. It was a real delight to me when I heard that you were to honour me under the roof of the ancient order of Painter Stainers. For it affords me an opportunity, not only of thanking sincerely – which I do – the Worshipful Master and Brethren, but of recording my life-long gratitude to the Painter Stainers. They have many times rescued me from starvation. When architectural commissions were scarce, with characteristic courage Essex, now Sir Walter Essex, dared to deal with my work. All his friends told him he was a fool to do so, but he persisted in spite of the fact that the public was opposed to birds and, in fact, everything that I did. My work was never popular; therefore you must all see how my position here to-night is due to my many kind friends more than to myself. So ’tis love, ’tis love that makes the world go round.”

Page last amended 15th June 2016