Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 3, 2017
David Cole The Art and Architecture of C. F. A. Voysey: English Pioneer Modernist Architect and Designer Mulgrave, Victoria, Australia: Images Publishing, 2015. 256 pp.; 195 color ills. Cloth $66.24 (9781864706048)
Karen Livingstone, Max Donnelly, and Linda Parry C. F. A. Voysey: Arts and Crafts Designer Exh. cat. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016. 320 pp. Cloth $65.00 (9781851778546)
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The titles of these two books aptly indicate the ambiguity that has always plagued any attempt to classify the work of Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857–1941). Is he the modernist architect who advocated concrete construction, the machine, and eschewed ornamented surfaces, or is he the artisan architect who upheld the teachings of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin and John Ruskin, followed Gothic principles, and produced scores of ornamental designs for furniture, wallpaper, and textiles? Nikolaus Pevsner attempted to synthesize these currents in Voysey’s work by including him in his landmark Pioneers of the Modern Movement (London: Faber and Faber, 1936). There Voysey was strategically positioned as an architect whose designs embodied the transition from the historicism of the nineteenth century to the abstracted modernism of the twentieth century. In addition, Pevsner singled out Voysey’s wallpaper and textile designs as a precursor to Art Nouveau. One of the problems with Pevsner’s assessment, however, was that Voysey, still living and designing when the book came out, soundly denied any claim to be a pioneer. And with regard to Art Nouveau specifically, he had flatly stated that he found it “unhealthy and revolting” (cited in Livingstone, 47; or originally, C. F. A. Voysey, “L’Art Nouveau: What It Is and What Is Thought of It, a Symposium,” Magazine of Art 2 (1904): 211).

Voysey’s resistance to easy classification may in part help explain the remarkable staying power of his work. Wendy Hitchmough’s standard biography, C. F. A. Voysey (London: Phaidon, 1995), provides a chronological list of the articles, catalogues, and books published on him from 1892 up to her own book. Voysey garnered national and international respect throughout his lifetime—it peaked at the turn of the century, but even as his architectural practice dried up he continued to design decorative arts and remained involved in artistic circles in London, receiving a gold medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1940. After his death, a decade barely passed without a publication on him. The efforts of John Betjeman were followed by the architect John Brandon-Jones (who worked with Voysey’s son, Charles Cowles-Voysey), which contributed to the preservation of many of Voysey’s buildings. The U.S. architectural historian David Gebhard reinforced Voysey’s international impact through an exhibition, articles, and the first monograph on Voysey in 1975 (Charles F. A. Voysey: Architect, Los Angeles: Hennessey and Ingalls). The revival of interest in the 1980s and 1990s in the Arts and Crafts Movement led to further publications, such as those by Stuart Durant. Studies of individual works and projects have continued to the present, aided by the journal The Orchard, published by the C. F. A. Voysey Society (founded in 2011).

David Cole and Karen Livingstone make significant contributions to that chain with The Art and Architecture of C. F. A. Voysey: English Pioneer Modernist Architect and Designer and C. F. A. Voysey: Arts and Crafts Designer, respectively. Both books are handsomely produced with copious color illustrations that draw extensively on archival and museum collections including the RIBA, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Crab Tree Farm. Readers already familiar with Voysey will be impressed by the extent and range of design work included. Both authors are keen to use these sources to underscore Voysey’s originality.

Cole’s book focuses upon a specific category of Voysey’s work: his watercolor drawings for his architectural projects. The drawings are a selection from RIBA’s British Architectural Library Drawings Collection. As Cole himself notes, the only prior publication that focused upon the drawings is Joanna Symonds’s Catalogue of the Drawing Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects: C. F. A. Voysey (London: Gregg, 1976). Cole is forthright about his own goal: he intends to use the drawings to extend Pevsner’s argument on Voysey’s pioneering status. After a brief twenty-page overview of Voysey’s career, Cole devotes the bulk of the book to the presentation and description of approximately seventy of the drawings. Drawings are grouped not by commission but by type: there are separate chapters on elevations, perspectives, and detail drawings. So, for example, the drawings for Broadleys are placed in separate chapters (with cross references to their location in the other chapters). Within each chapter the drawings are in chronological order. Most notably, Cole has reproduced the plan and elevation drawings at the same scale as the originals. (Perspective renderings are not to scale.) The result is a physically large book (approximately 12 × 15 inches) which showcases details and Voysey’s technique. A final chapter provides photographs by Cole of twenty-six of the houses to allow comparison between the drawings and the final built project. Some of these photos include houses not published previously.

For Cole, Voysey’s originality set him apart from his contemporaries, and he aims to use the drawings to identify Voysey’s design vocabulary or “manner.” For many, a Voysey house immediately conjures formal elements such as rough cast walls, L-shaped plans, battered corners, and bands of windows. Cole’s observations and close examination of the drawings bring out further examples. For example, he uses the elevation drawing for the unbuilt House at Westmeston, Sussex (1898), to call attention to recurrent elements, such as the curved polygonal bays, that appeared in earlier works such as Norney Grange and New Place, or the arcade, a feature Voysey returned to in commissions over the next seven years. Each entry provides a descriptive analysis of the drawings, including observations on any changes made between the drawings and buildings as executed. The recollections and correspondence of Brandon-Jones and Charles Cowles-Voysey are used to comment on Voysey’s technique and drawings methods.

The decision on how to group the drawings must have taken some consideration. The advantage of the current grouping rests in the ability to easily compare certain features over time, but the disadvantage is that it breaks up the entity of an individual house. This is not an insignificant disadvantage because it stalls any three-dimensional comprehension of the design. If there is one part of the discussion missing concerning Voysey’s originality, it has to be his sense of space. Plans are discussed for their planar shapes but not in conjunction with the elevations and their volumetric qualities. In an article for The Architectural Review, James Dunnett made a specific point of discussing Voysey’s spatiality (“C. F. A. Voysey [1857–1941]” [August 24, 2015]: https://www.architectural-review.com/rethink/reputations/cfa-voysey-1857-1941/8687069.article), and most readers of Pevsner will recall the canonic black-and-white interior photo of The Orchard with its unimpeded flow of space through the screened staircase. It just may be the case that a digital presentation of the drawings could better demonstrate this aspect of Voysey.

Livingstone’s book will undoubtedly serve as an anchor in the canon of Voysey literature. With its detailed text and rich array of images, it will draw readers back again and again. The choice and quantity of images alone immediately and impressively display the range of Voysey’s work. It is simply stunning. Livingstone provides an introductory essay on Voysey’s career and a separate essay on his metalwork and ceramics; Linda Parry contributes an essay on his repeating patterns in textiles and wallpapers, and Max Donnelly addresses his furniture. Each author includes examples from the entire span of Voysey’s career.

The book as a whole makes the argument that Voysey’s designs for decorative art objects were never secondary to his architectural work. This is an important argument that helps situate Voysey in the context of design theory at the turn of the century. At this time, a number of English, European, and U.S. architects and artisans sought universal principles of design that could underpin all of the arts irrespective of medium. Indeed, there was an active effort to dissolve the boundaries between the “Fine Art” of architecture and the “minor” arts of decorative design. Voysey’s first book, Reason as a Basis of Art (London: Elkin Matthews, 1906), aligns him with designers who sought to find those principles by elevating a rational approach. In it, Voysey sets out his own position clearly if not dogmatically—reason enabled the designer to abstract principles of good design from the historical past without reducing the designer to copying that past. The principles, in other words, ensured quality of design while simultaneously allowing for individuality and originality. It is no surprise that Voysey’s second book was titled Individuality (London: Chapman and Hall, 1915). Being “original” therefore did not entail rejecting the past (as it did for some of his European modernist colleagues). What is fascinating to see played out in the essays, therefore, is how Voysey learned to apply his design principles over such a wide range of mediums.

In her essays, Livingstone relies on her detailed knowledge of Voysey’s metalwork and ceramics to illuminate his principles; this in turn allows her to reassess Pevsner’s claims. For her, Voysey is original, but not a pioneer. In reference to Voysey’s design for a toast rack (which Pevsner included in his book), she writes:

However limited in production or experimental his designs for tablewares, or however arch and preaching his own words sound today, to him it was necessary and essential to rethink the design of everyday objects and reduce them to their simplest expression. This approach sometimes gave the appearance, in the toast rack, for example, of a proto-modernism that was claimed by Nikolaus Pevsner to be prefiguring modern design. Yet when considered against his full range of metalwork, the effect really is the direct consequence of pared down simplicity, quality of materials and understanding of technique. (268)

Her essay is an elaboration on these qualities—the range extends from fireplace fenders to memorial statues of pelicans—and stands to date as the most thorough examination of Voysey’s achievements in that medium.

Parry’s essay on repeating patterns is organized around common motifs, such as birds, and also by medium (wallpapers, textiles, woven textiles, and carpets). Parry utilizes her thorough knowledge of the drawings and the circumstances of their creation to discuss Voysey’s skill as a designer—she singles out an early design, “Three Men of Gotham” (1889), for example, to highlight an innate ability at narrative that continued throughout his career—but also as a businessman. Her knowledge of the commercial history of his designs allows her to include good information on all of the manufacturers with which he worked, such as Alexander Morton and Co.

Donnelly’s essay provides a more chronological and thematic approach to the furniture, with headings such as “experimentation and complexity” and “domestic furniture and flashes of humor.” Like Parry, he also addresses Voysey’s relations with the manufacturers that produced his designs. His detailed knowledge of the provenance of the objects allows him to provide case studies of iconic pieces, such as the Tempus Fugit clock, which he follows through its various iterations. The essay also draws attention to period and contemporary photographs of objects to highlight the change over time from their original appearance (for example, an oak table originally light and gold in color has slowly darkened over the decades).

Each essay is written to stand alone. While this leads to a bit of repetition with some of the facts, it will help readers with specific interests. Reading all three essays sequentially does raise some interesting overarching questions about Voysey’s approach. For example, Parry states that Voysey had a limited knowledge of manufacturing techniques when he drew his textile designs; but both Donnelly and Livingstone reinforce his interest in craftsmanship and production in their respective essays. As the materiality of design becomes an increasingly popular topic, the evidence each author provides will undoubtedly keep Voysey on the radar of future scholars.

Finally, something must be said of the image of Voysey presented in both books. Frequently reproduced photographs of Voysey, such as the one from the Batsford Gallery exhibition in 1931, give the sense of a lonely and stern man; both Cole and Livingston counter that impression with other portraits and biographical accounts. Readers see an 1884 photograph of a young Voysey with the hint of a smile, and a portrait by William Lee Hankey from circa 1930 shows off Voysey’s penchant for bright blue shirts. Robert Donat, the noted British actor who married Voysey’s niece, singled out Voysey’s smile. Such qualities may indeed help explain the whimsy and charm that percolate throughout the designs of this original architect.

Marie Frank
Associate Professor, Art History Program, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.