An architect of individuality
These words, coined by Dr Duncan Simpson as the subtitle of his 1979 book, are the perfect description of Charles Francis Annesley Voysey. His work was unique, modest and memorable, and he was not simply an architect who produced wonderful houses but a designer of furniture, domestic fittings and ironmongery, of flamboyant wallpaper, fabrics and exquisite graphic items. His buildings, principally some fifty substantial houses for individual clients, based on unspecified vernacular traditions, were distinctive, simple, and elegant.
Voysey’s work, and the philosophy behind it, was well publicised at the time by his own writings, including Individuality which he published in 1915, in The Studio magazine, and in Dekorative Kunst in Germany, which gave him an international reputation. In today’s world he would undoubtedly have been branded a celebrity. His simplicity of design caused him to be labelled as a forerunner of the Modern Movement in architecture, a concept which he strongly rejected. Although he had affinities with the work of William Morris, Ballie Scott, Mackmurdo and even Mackintosh, Voysey remained an individual and rejected membership of any particular group and also the socialism of Morris.
Voysey was born in Yorkshire in 1857. His grandfather Annesley Voysey (1794-1834) had been a successful architect, but his earliest influence was his father, the Rev. Charles Voysey, an Anglican minister who challenged the literal truth of the Bible. This was an outlandish thing to do in Victorian England, for which he was declared a heretic and was removed from his parish. He responded by founding his own Theistic Church, which prospered until his death in 1912.
Voysey was initially educated at home but then attended Dulwich College, where he did not shine. He was articled to the architect J.P. Seddon in 1874, then assisted Henry Saxon Snell, followed by George Devey, a prominent country house architect and also supporter of the Theistic church. As Devey’s workload decreased, in 1881 Voysey opened his own office and started experimenting with domestic designs. He was encouraged by A.H. Mackmurdo to supplement his income by designing wallpaper and fabrics, and became very successful at this.
His success as an architect was finally marked in 1891 by the construction of the tower house at 14 South Parade in Bedford Park. Voysey rejected stylistic revival, basing his designs and use of materials close to the Arts and Crafts vernacular, yet distinctive and instantly recognizable as his work. He married Mary Maria Evans in 1885 and eventually built their own family home, The Orchard at Chorleywood, in 1900.
His practice flourished, and for twenty years he became one of the most sought after architects for progressive middle class clients in England, but a combination of fashion and his uncompromising attitude may have lost him commissions and the work had dried up by the first world war, although he continued with furniture, wallpaper and competition designs. His income became so reduced that his son took him to live in Winchester.
Despite his early success he did not receive recognition from the establishment until an exhibition of his work in 1931, the Royal Society of Arts award of ‘Designer for Industry’ in 1936, and finally the RIBA Gold Medal in 1940, only a year before his death.
As an architect, his entire oeuvre comprised fewer than fifty modest buildings, the majority of which are extant today and are generally well cared for by their appreciative owners, and examples of his furniture and decorative items are appreciated world wide.
CL, November 2011
Page last amended 5th January 2013