View largeDownload slide View largeDownload slide View largeDownload slide View largeDownload slide The English architect and designer Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857–1941) has long been considered a kind of bridge between nineteenth-century British design reforms and the modernist project of the early twentieth century, thanks largely to Nikolaus Pevsner’s influential assessment in Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936). Motivated commentators could certainly find in Voysey’s own writings an impatience with historicizing design; in Individuality (1915), he asserts that ‘if we cast behind us all preconceived styles, our work will still possess a style, but it will be a living natural and true expression of modern needs and ideals: not an insincere imitation of other nations or other times’1. David Cole’s 2015 monograph viewed Voysey through an explicit modernist lens, but as two recent books remind us, he was equally rooted in the decorative, vernacularizing impulses of the Arts and Crafts Movement.2C.F.A. Voysey: Arts and Crafts Designer, by a team of current and former Victoria & Albert Museum curators, and a newly revised edition of Stuart Durant’s The Decorative Designs of C.F.A. Voysey, differ in their scope and source material, but together provide an important corrective to modernist accounts of Voysey’s work. In C.F.A. Voysey: Arts and Crafts Designer, the authors deliberately deemphasize architecture, instead looking closely at the prodigious portfolio of textiles and wallpapers, furniture, ceramics, and metalwork that Voysey designed for his clients’ homes or commercial production. They juxtapose the V&A’s collection with archival sources, previous scholarship, and objects dispersed elsewhere to analyse Voysey’s studio practices and financial relationships; the authors’ attention to detail and the generous illustrations make the volume an especially useful addition to the literature. Karen Livingston’s introductory chapter offers a genealogy of the ideas that animated Voysey’s work, positioning him in the intellectual and social milieu of British design reform. Livingston attributes much of Voysey’s outlook on his profession to his nonconformist faith (his father, Reverend Charles Voysey, founded the Theistic Church in 1871); she draws explicit parallels to the early design reformer A.W.N. Pugin and the links he forged between Gothic architecture, his own Catholic faith, and the potency of design for wider social reforms. She further notes that Voysey’s architectural mentors, John Pollard Seddon and George Devey, were directly influenced by both Pugin and John Ruskin. Voysey’s connections to other participants in the Gothic and vernacular revivals of the later nineteenth century—designers like Norman Shaw, William Burges, or George Edmund Street—are sketched out more loosely, however, characterized as a kind of broad admiration and giving a limited sense of how he encountered them or their work. Largely absent from the introduction is the figure of William Morris. Aside from a brief mention that the conservative Voysey rejected Morris’s socialist politics, the elder designer’s influential craft-driven ethos—and Voysey’s grudging esteem for his prolific output—is not treated here.3 While the attempt to wrest Voysey’s career out from under Morris’s long shadow is admirable, Morris’s near-total absence reads as a perhaps unnecessarily dissentious gesture. The designer Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo receives a more robust inclusion for his role in prompting Voysey (his contemporary) to expand his decorative repertoire, and Livingston concludes with a review of the art journals and exhibitions that helped solidify his reputation throughout and beyond Britain. The remainder of the volume comprises three chapters focused on specific media. While this structure obscures the carefully choreographed interaction between materials, objects and spaces that the authors name as one of Voysey’s perpetual concerns, it nevertheless illustrates the importance of these smaller scale, more mobile products of his practice. In the first chapter, Linda Parry examines Voysey’s pattern designs for textiles and wallpapers, arguing that this activity—which persisted throughout his career—was not just a side-project to underwrite his more ‘serious’ architectural work, but in fact allowed Voysey’s beliefs to reach their broadest audience. The chapter is structured around the iconography of Voysey’s patterns (plant life, birds, etc.), but begins with an intriguing glimpse into the designer’s late-career ambivalence toward the role of artist-for-industry, whose carefully conceived plans were inevitably subject to the whims of unsympathetic or ignorant manufacturers. Regardless, Voysey’s sheer prolificacy attests to his success in this arena, and Parry deftly explores his aesthetic inventiveness alongside the mercantile context of manufacturers and retailers that enabled the wider florescence of ‘art papers’. Intriguingly, she points out that Voysey’s business practices (sometimes selling the same design to multiple clients, remaining agnostic about their specific application) indicate a sense of pragmatism and financial expediency that complicate the typical characterization of nineteenth-century ornament debate as a fundamentally prescriptive discourse among design reformers. Max Donnelly authors the second chapter, focused on Voysey’s furniture and structured more thematically, treating manifold topics like materials, processes of manufacture, and formal experimentation. Donnelly constructs a convincing case that Voysey’s furniture—praised for its originality by many of his contemporaries—not only responded to the larger principles of ‘fitness to purpose’ and the simple treatment of materials that preoccupied proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement, but also formed an integral component of the architectural environments he designed. One association left unexplored regards the concern in reformist circles for domestic hygiene—a preoccupation expressed in the pared-down, easy-to-clean types of furniture recommended by prolific advice literature like Charles Eastlake’s 1868 Hints on Household Taste. While this discourse was evidently not a chief motivation, one wonders whether Voysey was aware of the progressivist, sanitary implications of his cane-seated or lightly upholstered designs, especially given his consciousness to the relationship between health and the built environment evident in his 1899 design for Winsford Cottage Hospital in Devon. The third and final chapter, again by Livingston, focuses on Voysey’s lesser-known designs for metalwork and ceramics. Her survey is structured by medium and typology (hinges and locks, hollowware, fireplace furniture, light fixtures, etc.), which allows close attention to the details and differences among these (usually) serially produced works. Voysey came later to these fields than to furniture and patterns, but Livingston suggests that thanks to The Studio and other publications, his metalwork especially was well-known and respected in the decades bracketing the turn of the century. Interestingly, he consciously rejected both the collectivist politics of Arts and Crafts metalworkers like C.R. Ashbee and their fetishisation of fine materials and craft techniques. Voysey’s apparent interest in justifying his ability to work with larger manufacturers and individual craftsmen alike, while maintaining a kind of detachment from the main ideological thrust of the Arts and Crafts movement, presents a further intriguing ambiguity in his relationship to the ideals of design reform. Durant’s slender volume is more modest in scope and more targeted in its focus, examining Voysey’s drawings for textile and wallpaper designs in the collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). A biographical essay summarizing Voysey’s training and career precedes the plates, differing most significantly from the book’s first edition (published in 1990) in its expanded selection of comparative illustrations, fleshing out the cultural and professional contexts in which Voysey operated. Durant considers Voysey’s early mentors in greater depth in this edition as well, exploring their own backgrounds to hypothesize how they may have weighed on Voysey in his later independent career. He begins with Reverend Voysey and his colourful theological career, then moves to John Charles Lewis Sparkes (Art Master at Dulwich College) and Voysey’s successive periods working under John Pollard Seddon and George Devey, finding premonitions of his mature architecture in each of these practices. Amid this familiar mix, Durant gives more attention than does Livingston to Voysey’s short tenure in the office of architect Henry Saxon Snell in 1879–80, between his stints with Seddon and Devey. Snell’s large practice specialized in hospital and workhouse architecture; with the complex technical, medical, and financial exigencies of such institutional commissions, the young Voysey was presented with limited room for artistic efforts. Durant sees in the acute brevity of Voysey’s time with Snell—only a few months—an early indication of his desire for creative agency and individuality. As is evident from this focus on Voysey’s work in the architectural arena, the author foregrounds Voysey as an architect—a discussion of ornament follows only after Durant’s description of Voysey’s house designs, his influence on reformist architecture on the continent and his writings.4 Late in the essay, Durant situates the arc of Voysey’s career in relation to the larger Arts and Crafts movement—making a particular case for the importance of Morris’s writings and designs—but as in Livingston’s introduction, Voysey’s specific relationships to the work of other figures of his era prove somewhat slippery. Many of the associations that Durant posits are left at the level of suggestion, whether through formal comparison or simple chronological overlap. While these comparisons are generally convincing, he often resorts to constructions of ‘must have’ and ‘likely to’ rather than pointing to documentary evidence of these influences, leaving the reader with little sense of the specifics. RIBA’s Voysey collection comprises 790 drawings, and around 200 of those are for decorative patterns. The 64 examples selected for this volume are reproduced in generously-scaled plates following Durant’s essay. The illustrations are organized roughly chronologically between the late 1880s and into the 1930s, demonstrating the impressive span of Voysey’s career as a designer of patterns. Each plate is accompanied by brief commentary that tends to focus on formal qualities and symbolic content—although, like Parry, Durant discusses which designs were sold to certain manufacturers, where such information is known. Since the volume exclusively examines drawings, rather than surviving wallpapers and textiles themselves, some discussion of the specific media or techniques present in the works might have provided an additional line of productive inquiry into Voysey’s design practice. One limitation of this book is its lack of the typical apparatus of notes and citations; while it is clear that Durant engages with primary correspondence and commentary, for the most part, specific references to these documents or to secondary literature are elided in favour of a general bibliography. A few small glitches of revision (repeated passages, misnumbered figure references) have also crept through, but overall the text offers a concise overview of Voysey’s career and a rich visual sampling of his approach to two-dimensional patterns. It remains a key resource for dating designs, allowing the reader to track the overall trajectory of Voysey’s aesthetic thinking. A leitmotif of the literature on Voysey is the self-reflexive scholarly remark about the difficulty of squaring his dense, decorative pattern designs with the simplicity of his furniture and architecture.5 Was he a prescient proto-modernist, per Pevsner, or rather a romantic, reactionary vernacular revivalist? Livingson, Parry and Donnelly make nods toward this tension, but largely sidestep the impulse to render a deterministic judgment in favour of specific attention to Voysey’s creative intentions and practical design solutions. Durant, meanwhile, insightfully reminds us that the collectivist philosophy behind the modernists’ visions of industrial modernity was the same ideological feature of Arts and Crafts (however transformed) that Voysey explicitly resisted. By foregrounding smaller-scale objects or pattern designs, the authors of both volumes embrace Voysey’s role as a designer standing on the hinge between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, making the welcome argument that we should view his decorative work on equal footing with the more typically intellectualized activity of architecture. Notes 1 C. Francis Annesley Voysey, Individuality (1915; reprinted London: Nadder Books, 1986), 62. 2 See D. Cole, The Art and Architecture of C. F. A. Voysey: English Pioneer Modernist Architect and Designer (Mulgrave, Victoria, Australia: Images Publishing, 2015). 3 For Voysey’s double-edged views on Morris see, e.g., W. Hitchmough, CFA Voysey (London: Phaidon, 1995), 18. The tradition of interpreting Voysey as Morris’s “successor” (which perhaps the authors here intend to resist) precedes Pevsner with Hermann Muthesius’s commentary on Voysey in his 1904 Das Englische Haus. 4 This emphasis is understandable given the author’s previous work; see S. Durant, CFA Voysey, Architectural Monographs No. 19 (London: Academy; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992). 5 For example, J. Brandon-Jones, et al., C.F.A. Voysey: Architect and Designer, 1857–1941 (London: Lund Humphries; Art Gallery, Museums, and Royal Pavilion Brighton, 1978), 74; or Hitchmough, CFA Voysey, 221–222. © The Author(s) . Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Design History Society. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of Design History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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