architecture’s sweetheart

C.F.A. Voysey

Judging by his portraits alone, Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857–1941) appears to have been an awfully grouchy person, someone with whom you’d not want to quibble over the last crumpet on the tea service let alone venture into whatever severe, strict, minimal architectural setting that such a grump would design.  Yet Voysey’s work represents a completely different character and personality than that which is suggested by this unfortunate photograph (which must have been the result of a dawdling photographer keeping a perturbed Voysey from getting some cookies out of the oven, or perhaps finishing some sweaters he was knitting for puppies).  Quite simply put, Voysey has left us the most charming and engaging architecture; this is especially true considering how seldom architects have regarded these small human values through the centuries.

Moor Crag (1899)

Some may argue that Voysey was one of the world’s greatest architects, and they might be right.  Surely in the sphere of domestic architecture at the turn of the century he was far ahead of the rest of the field (even eclipsing MoT‘s closer-to-hometown hero from nearby Oak Park).  Much has been written about Voysey’s special, un-niche-ifiable place in the history of architecture, with something in common with the woozy use of history and industry among Art Nouveau masters, on the outskirts of the medieval craftiness of the Arts and Crafts tradition, and claimed by many to be adjacent to the more abstract thinkers formulating the Neues Bauen.

"Let Us Prey" (1909)

Once in a while it looks like Voysey visited one of these neighborhoods, but he never completely settled in. Although there’s still much to be said to try to either shackle him to one or more of these movements, or to free him altogether as a uniquely creative person, our interest in Voysey is focused on an attribute of his work which is sorely lacking in architecture today, yesterday, and almost all periods in history.  It’s a simple notion and one that’s very human: affection.  Style issues aside, most of the great architects have in common a tendency toward expressing much greater ideals through the use of carefully studied symbols drawn explicitly from architecture’s history or building technology.  To understand those buildings, a person needs to have a certain education in architecture.  Voysey, on the other hand, celebrates common experiences and that taps into core qualities of young and old at a very innocent and effortless place.  In architecture and design, he celebrates and elevates the vernacular in a familiar yet extraordinary way.

Oftentimes work like Voysey’s is described as being “lovingly crafted,” leaving one to wonder: just what is loved here?  And who has done the loving: the architect, or the workers on the site who actually smoothed the stones and sanded the wood?  (Note: we use the word work with some discomfort since there is little sense of toil about what Voysey did, but his production does spread far beyond the realm of architecture to virtually all furnishings welcome in a house.)  In Voysey’s case it’s clear the architect cared for people. From the big formal decisions of his houses (big and little) which drew from a longstanding tradition of comfortable residential design in Britain, to the small notes of decorative objects, Voysey designed in a way that was at once as delightful as it is engaging: a sign of respect for the original dwellers in these places and a pleasure for us later visitors to these well-scaled, simply-rendered  forms sheltered with strong roofs.  Interiors are fitted with decorative arts similarly designed to serve and shelter a cozy life.

"Whoot" fabric (1898)

These may be Arts and Crafts goals generally speaking, but Voysey succeeds here more so than the other acknowledged masters of the movement.  Voysey’s two-dimensional designs reveal obvious similarities to, say, William Morris; but where Morris’ designs tend toward the high contrasts and vivid color combinations, Voysey is softer and gentler.  Morris’ birds flit among thorny flowers and prickly leaves; Voysey’s critters nestle into yielding petals and curvaceous plants. Morris’ designs represent a taxonomy of whatever sprouted or chirped in his yard.  Voysey selects those elements of nature that are most fun.  Morris’ famous “Strawberry Thief” is cheeky only in title; Voysey’s owl is a whoot even before we know the name of the pattern.

"Hey Diddle Diddle" wallpaper

Others of his designs even more clearly reveal Voysey’s intent to make us smile.  Up close, sophisticated patterns remind us of childhood rhymes and nursery tales.  Like the poem from which it is drawn, the “Hey Diddle Diddle” paper neither hides nor reveals satire or critique; it’s simply delightful.  (Our only complaint is the dominance of the cat and fiddle at the expense of the little dog.)  Several other such patterns appear in Voysey’s collection, including a rambunctious “Alice in Wonderland” as dizzying as Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole must have been.  In “Let us Prey,” the line of a grey cat’s tail echoes that of a worm burrowing into a flower, being eyed by a bird who is being stalked by a cat.

Norney Grange (1897)

Plenty of other obvious narratives and identifiable emblems appear throughout his houses and gardens, from laughing faces in a sundial, to ships sailing smooth waters on the face of a clock, to the Tree of Life–home to kissing birds–appearing on everything from mantlepieces to brooches.  All of these speak of whimsy, delight, hope and other good things.  But none represents these positive ideals so clearly as one of the simplest shapes, the heart.

Voysey’s hearts are all over his houses (and even in the grumpy portrait above, where the “hand and heart” idea is seen in the sculpture next to Voysey).  The heart is the simplest sign of love and affection, a form every school child learns to make with their first Valentine in art class.  It shows up in religious art also, and Voysey’s affection for mankind appears to have been a response to his personal faith in a benevolent God.

front door, The Orchard (1899)

The Voysey heart appears everywhere: from coat hooks, mantlepieces and wall paper, to hinges and letter slots.  Overuse of this simple shape, in the hands of a lesser designer, could easily veer into the cloying realm of Hello Kitty; Voysey reins in the potential saccharine in part because his heart is unique.  It is broader  than most and less bulbous on top.  Voysey’s heart swells.  More importantly, he means it; the heart is not an afterthought but a symbol of a driving motive and greater ideals in Voysey’s designs, especially the houses.  It is appropriate that they cluster around doors, in letter box details, hinges, latches.  Like the rest of Voysey’s design work, the doors to his houses are proportioned in a slightly different, but always right-feeling way.  Voysey rejected standard doors which to him resembled coffins.  Instead, he said, the door to a house should be wide enough to accommodate  two people to walk in together: husband and wife, a pair of friends or siblings, parent and child, or–we imagine–dog and dog-person.

it's a coat hook!

This detail speaks to the consistency and sincerity of Voysey’s sentiment.  His legible symbolism is not born of the smirking, clever architect’s play at theory that appears to draw in the uninitiated with recognizable cues but really distances them all the more for their unsophisticated misreading of multi-valent emblems.  Neither is it the ponderous essay of the erudite academician whose dignified ornament is appealing but demands we sit up straight.  Voysey does not mind if we slouch.

One of the legacies of twentieth century is a judgement of architecture that favors exposure of industrial materials and structure and treating “rational” utility as the sole end of building.  This is a skewed way to judge architecture that diverges from the manner common for millenia during which architects recognized three criteria of judgement, famously paraphrased from Vitruvius by Henry Wotton (Elements of Architecture, 1624) in his dictum “Well building hath three conditions, firmness, commodity and delight.”  Voysey reminds us of the importance of that final goal: delight.  Wit without irony, humor with no bite.  An engaging architecture of strong forms protecting lovely, harmonious, warm, personable, affectionate interiors in which the human spirit can thrive.  Houses where heart is king.

"Union of Hearts" (1898)

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5 thoughts on “architecture’s sweetheart

  1. Brilliant! Certainly not the funniest MoT to date, but probably the best to date. Insightful, accessible, informative; opens the way to a new understanding of the work. Exceptionally tasty!

  2. We were pleased to discover this fresh and insightful account of C.F.A Voysey and his work. Readers of the blog may be interested to hear about the recent formation of The C.F.A. Voysey Society. More detail at voyseysociety.com.

    1. I know I was delighted to read about the CFA Voysey Society–the more recognition the better for one of the greatest architects/designers of the late 19th& 20th centuries, one of Taste’s absolute hands-down favorites of any century.

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