harles Francis Annesley Voysey's architecture and design work draws upon a spirit of uncompromising reliance on essential principles, including the principles of fidelity to tradition and of simplicity. Voysey believed, first, that art should conform to the essential laws of nature and that it should develop naturally from the conditions and historical traditions of the nation that produced it. Thus Voysey vigorously opposed excessive reliance on foreign sources. He preferred to rely on established precedents, specifically the vernacular rural cottage tradition. Second, Voysey argued that each aspect of a well-designed aesthetic object should express its essential purpose in a simple, unpretentious manner. Voysey eschewed the use of superficial decoration simply for decoration's sake. His works did attempt to communicate deeper meanings, partly through the use of symbolic decoration, but for him "a sense of simplicity is seen as the basis upon which to build toward these more complex and ambitious ideals" (Brandon-Jones 67).
The pieces of Voysey furniture reproduced on the Victorian Web present textbooks examples of Voysey's aesthetic. The oak dining chair from 1898 looks functional, elegant, and nearly generic. It uses horizontal lines almost exclusively and lacks any upholstery, except for the rush seat. The chair has only one explicitly decorative element, the splat pierced with heart designs. These designs-- the only visually interesting features of the chair-- carry the entire symbolic meaning of the object. The simple symbol of the heart suggests warmth, love and comfort, qualities which Voysey saw as essential to a domestic environment. This symbolic element fits in perfectly with the overall design of the chair and relates explicitly to the chair's function. This chair stands in polar opposition to the examples we have seen of furniture that gave Victorian style a bad name. Such pieces of furniture employed garish upholstery and contorted designs, for no apparent reason other than conspicuous consumption. Four years before the execution of this chair, Voysey had complained:
The intemperate indulgence in display and elaboration, in gilding and veneer, and the feverish thirst for artificial excitement are all part and parcel of our proverbial restlessness. Too much luxury is death to the artistic soul. So there is no desire for simplicity, repose, harmony, dignity, or breadth. [...] [T]he poor architect, who labours to attain these virtues in his interiors, is exposed to the insult and indignity of having all his work spoiled by the upholsterer. [Gebhard 39]
Similarly, Voysey's pattern designs employed beautifully elaborate decorative schemes, but he took care to ensure that his decoration derived from simple natural imagery and that it did not violate the natural limitations associated with pattern design. In a lecture of 1895 he stressed that "the walls of ordinary living-rooms should be treated as backgrounds, subservient to pictures, furniture, and people," for which reason "the utmost flatness is essential" (Gebhard 50-51). Therefore his designs, such as the printed cotton pattern reproduced on the Victorian Web, make no attempt at three-dimensionality or realism. Voysey did not intend these designs as self-sufficient art objects which commanded attention or drew the spectator into their pictorial space. Rather, these designs serve as backdrops for the display of other objects which demand more sustained attention. These designs react against what Voysey called "those realistic flowery papers, in which there is a display of light and shade, and perspective of a naturalistic character." He saw such designs as examples of the same negative tendency that characterized bad Victorian furniture: "[T]heir villainy harmonises with the brutality of the furniture and architecture which they accompany" (Gebhard 51).
In Voysey's opinion, these negative design tendencies resulted from attempts to emulate past precedents and foreign traditions: "For this state of things, in a great measure, we have to thank the spirit of revivalism" (Gebhard 39). Voysey believed that successful decorative arts should instead draw upon the living historical tradition of their country of origin. He situated his work squarely within the English religious and social tradition, and worked to continue that tradition and to update it for his era.
1. Voysey's design philosophy was essentially conservative; he saw the traditional style as the only proper style for English design. He also held conservative religious beliefs, even though his father had suffered expulsion from the Anglican Church for denying established doctrine. Did Voysey's conservatism extend to his political beliefs? Does his work support the existing social order, as Ford Madox Brown's Work seems to do?
2. Voysey's opposition to excessive decoration allies him with the Modernist architects and designers who came to prominence during his later years (he died in 1941). However, unlike them, Voysey did not eliminate ornamentation entirely; rather, he used ornamentation sparingly and in a manner appropriate to his context. To what extent does Voysey's work represent an intermediate step between the Victorian and Modernist movements?
3. In recent weeks we have studied several Pre-Raphaelite associates who employed extravagant ornamentation (Swinburne) or who consciously echoed the style of previous ages (Burne-Jones, Morris). Voysey expressed strong opposition to both these strategies. Did Voysey view people like Swinburne and Burne-Jones as examples of the negative tendencies he wished to counter, or did he have anything in common with them?
4. Voysey had mixed feelings about Morris in particular. He admired Morris as a designer but avoided reading his books because of Morris's atheism. Presumably he would have had similar problems with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for example. Was Voysey an outsider to Morris's circle, or did he have other personal connections to Pre-Raphaelitism?
5. Voysey's sparse and precise use of symbolism contrasts with the work of artists such as Holman Hunt or the early Millais, in which nearly every element bears some meaning relevant to typological symbolism. Did Voysey ever use typological symbolism similar to that of Hunt or Millais? Would he have regarded their work as overly crowded or busy?
6. John Brandon-Jones states that "[t]o Voysey a house was not a machine for living in, it was a home" (12). This comment implicitly opposes Voysey to the pioneering Modernist architect Le Corbusier, who famously wrote that "a house is a machine for living in." Were Voysey's views typical of popular Victorian opinions on the function of a home?
Architect-Designers from Pugin to Mackintosh. Exhibition catalogue. London: The Fine Art Society with Haslam & Whiteway Ltd., 1981. No. 42.
Brandon-Jones, John, et al. C.F.A. Voysey: Architect and Designer, 1857-1941. Bradford, Yorkshire: Lund Humphries, 1978.
Gebhard, David. Charles F.A. Voysey, Architect. Los Angeles: Hennessey & Ingals, 1975.
Last modified 20 November 2004