Reviews

7 September 2015 -

The Art and Architecture of C.F.A. Voysey: English Pioneer Modernist Architect and Designer By David Cole. The Images Publishing Group (Victoria, Australia)

Agendas of many Voysey researchers and their resulting publications endeavour to position Charles Francis Annesley Voysey in a particular way within an active landscape of artist-architect-designers in English, early modernist design history. For Voysey, this is no easy task because his portfolio of works – and unfinished designs – provides a wealth of directions and he does indeed defy easy categorization.

David Cole, an architect himself, approaches Voysey with the empathy of his profession in his new book, The Art and Architecture of C.F.A. Voysey: English Pioneer Modernist Architect and Designer. Cole introduces the man as “one of the most influential British architects and designers practising during the two decades spanning the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries” and later as “the complete artist-architect-designer”(p.2, 20). Researchers’ categorization usually reflects the motive of their publication, and book is no exception. Cole argues that there is art in the process and principles of Voysey’s architecture theory and practice.

Cole is quick to point out the remarkable number of Voysey’s buildings that remain and the spectrum of his commissions from urban and country houses and cottages to factories. Cole also writes in the first paragraph of the book that Voysey’s design accomplishments cover numerous mediums, from wallpapers and carpets to furniture, cutlery and domestic metalworks (toast racks to door handles) as well as bookplates, typography and posters.

Voysey, therefore, in addition to architect, is an accomplished graphic designer as well as product, furniture and interior designer. It is this spectrum of output that makes Voysey very tempting for collectors – museums and private collections alike: there are several international organizations and foundations with an appetite for his work including the Crab Tree Farm Foundation in the US, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Arts & Crafts Museum in Cheltenham, both in the UK.

Cole rightly acknowledges the impossibility to form a comprehensive publication across all these design constituencies, and he chooses to focus on Voysey’s architectural accomplishments and his watercolour drawings in the RIBA collection. The term “drawings” is intentional and subtle, leading to Cole’s argument that they are particular and precious works with an aesthetic attention that classifies them more as drawings rather than drafts, plans or blueprints. Most elevations and floor plans were done in Voysey’s hand, one trained not only from articling in the architectural offices of JP Seddon and George Devey but his simultaneous work in pattern design and colouration for prominent manufacturers including Sanderson & Co and GP & J Baker.


Cole’s result is indeed a very rich publication – its oversize format accommodates nearly to-scale colour re-productions of Voysey’s architectural drawings in a provision that is rare in books focused on him. It reminds one of Wendy Hitchmough’s lush 1992 monograph for Phaidon, CFA Voysey; however, this edition by Cole has a different intent, and its focus as an archival survey publication serves it well as an organized and well-cited resource, avoiding the rather frustrating publication of an image or design without sourcing it – granted this being an easier task in Cole’s case due to his affiliation with RIBA collection and extant buildings.

An introductory essay by Cole sets out important context on Voysey’s upbringing, period of practice and individual principles in design. Voysey’s architectural work draws on John Ruskin’s adherence to nature for inspiration and morality and A.W.N Pugin’s formal guidelines to reduce ornament to functionality and structural properties. This book – at once a focus on his drawings as well as built design – emphasises Voysey’s principles in their execution. Because the publication is so illustration-rich, Cole’s brief but concise text is supported by the visual elements apparent across two decades of Voysey’s studio practice, beginning in 1880 to a post-war decline - where Voysey clung to his principles to the point of repetition and self-quotation (and some would suggest unwavering stubbornness).

Voysey owned all of his architectural drawings, each one labelled by his hand in both name and last registered address in St James’s in London. The drawings were donated to the RIBA, which honoured Voysey with the prestigious Royal Gold Medal in 1940. The collection is not entirely comprehensive, but it is substantial, and was catalogued by Joanna Symonds in the 1976 Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects: C.F.A. Voysey. Cole’s publication is a useful companion and compliment to Symonds’ unillustrated work, and in a specific way. The structure of presentation of Cole’s book offers an interesting challenge to previous publications on Voysey.

His strategy is at first a chronological one and describes, with illustrations, the early influences and training of Voysey and the beginning of his own practice and client base. Followed by sections titled “Successful Years 1890-1905”, “Changing Times 1905-1915” and “Challenging Times 1915-1930”, “Influence & Legacy” explains the paradox of Voysey whose work was such a strong influence in early modernism but who, due to his individual epistemology, refused to accept this link or, in some cases, credit. This section is quite triumphalist and could be woven in to the chronological sections to cement context or the importance of particular works and publications.

Despite this circular content, the section “Technique and Composition” is crucial and rare in its specific detailing of how and where Voysey worked. The grade of pencil, the practiced and efficient drafting hand, his own typography, a bespoke drawing table designed to fit a favoured weight and size of paper, and preference for working amidst the office pupils are valued insights into the process of design, often passed over by previous authors in favour of outcome and evidence.

Also of importance in this book, and a rare provision, is Cole’s explanation of the rationale of photography for the book, which might have better been placed in a preface, with expansion on the selection process for the “best” of Voysey’s drawings in the RIBA collection. Cole explains the retention of near scale for the benefit of grain and texture. High-resolution entire and zoom shots of each drawing or grouping were taken with digital editing to remove catalogue numbers and damage. As a researcher, I question this move and the decision seems to be an aesthetic one that lifts the patina accrued by the continuous perusal of these drawings not only by Voysey himself by other scholars and architects.

As mentioned, the bulk of the book is illustrative, which is a delicious – if overly clean - provision. This is not just a coffee-table book to flick through, although that is an option; rather, there is an intricate system of cross-referencing within the book’s subsections under “The Art of C.F.A. Voysey” (“Elevations”, “Perspectives”, “Detail Drawings & Interiors”) and the photographs in “Built Works”. To read thoroughly about a specific project in this publication means navigating multiple pages in different sections. Some houses, particularly Voysey’s well-known structures including Perrycroft, Broadleys and Moor Crag are spread across as many as four subsections: the early pages to glean context on Voysey’s corresponding career phase for the project; the elevations; the perspectives; detail design features; contemporary photographs of the extant site.

While it might seem more logical to group these resources into project-led sections, like Hitchmough does in her book, the decision to spread the material like a choose-your-own approach seeks to preserve the process of Voysey’s methods rather than its outcomes. This allows for demonstration in order as well as preservation of the art of composing each type of drawing – for composing an elevation is a different activity and purpose than a perspective, particularly in Voysey’s method. Cole points out that Voysey used perspective drawings to convey near-finished designs to clients for their approval, having drawn the plan and elevations in advance only and working according to his mental vision. While the perspectives were rarely by Voysey’s hand (unlike his other drawings), they were developed in collaboration with Howard Gaye and were also a marketing tool for publication, consultation and exhibition. Seeing them gathered in like sections provides an insightful viewing for those interested in Voysey’s work and seeing the process of an architect visualising and then building a structure, from elevation to perspective, with details and contemporary photographs.

As a designer-architect with a comprehensive and distinct style, Voysey’s influence is traceable across continents and movements from the American Arts & Crafts stalwarts Greene & Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright to Western Europe in the 1900s from Darmstadt to De Stijl. This publication illustrates Voysey’s design process in a thoughtful way. At times slightly triumphalist and lacking any archival images of Voysey homes, there are definite features to praise here. I see the value in this book as an illustrated finding aid to Voysey’s drawings first and foremost in the RIBA collection, but also a useful interpretation of their role in Voysey’s practice. The volume and detail of images clarifies the subtle developments and distinctive motifs Voysey adhered to throughout his career: his adherence to nature, fitness in design through colour and material texture, and themes of morality and peacefulness in the home.


Maya Oppenheimen

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