Architecture: Heart-shaped stamp of an obsessive individualist: From houses to spoons, C F A Voysey's designs have a clarity that appeals to the modern eye, says David Brady

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The Independent Culture
John Betjeman was among the first to rediscover the Arts and Crafts architect Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857-1941) when the latter was an old man living with no work and little money in a service flat in Pimlico, London. That was in 1931, when Betjeman was assistant editor of the Architectural Review, where he delighted in reviving obscure Victorian architects and when all things Victorian were considered anathema by the po-faced avant-garde.

Betjeman's enthusiasm brought Voysey back into favour and he was awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1940, his eighty-third year - having once been famous, yet having built nothing since the end of the First World War.

Voysey is revived again this week with the opening of 'C F A Voysey: Heart and Home' an exhibition of his life, work and influence, at the Design Museum, London. Voysey's might be an obscure name still, yet in many ways - wittingly or not - he helped to shape the form of the English suburban house and nourished the curiously English idyll of the happy family home set in a landscape neither muddily rural nor urban.

His houses looked like no one else's had: massive eaves and chimneys clucking over white roughcast walls. His own house had an interior in which doorframes and windowsills were scaled down: Mr and Mrs Voysey were both small and bird-like. His trade mark was the heart, cut into windows and shutters, formed into hinges and brackets of every house he built. He was a prolific designer who shaped and styled the houses he designed down to the last detail.

The son of a maverick clergyman and descended from both Charles Wesley and Wellington, Voysey was educated at home. His father was expelled from the Church of England on grounds of heresy and established his own sect, the Theistic church in Swallow Street, Piccadilly.

As an architect, Voysey was as wilful, or as individualistic, as his father. His early clients, mostly Quakers, approved of his ascetic convictions and his desire to order their domestic lives by designing everything for them, from wallpaper to cutlery. There was, for Voysey, a rational explanation for all his designs and he expected clients to accept his idiosyncratic explanations, brooking no opposition to his views. In this way he was very like his hero Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, father of the ecclesiastically correct Gothic Revival in Victorian Britain (and joint architect of the Houses of Parliament), who died, quite mad, at the age of 40 in 1852.

H G Wells, the progressive novelist, commissioned a house from Voysey because Voysey appeared to be the most radical among young architects. Wells was soon objecting to the ubiquitous heart motif and managed to have his hearts inverted and turned into spades. Nevertheless, Wells praised his wilful architect: 'We found an architect in C F A Voysey, that pioneer in the escape from the small, snobbish, villa residence to the bright and comfortable pseudo-cottage.' Wells captures the essence of Voysey's architecture. Never comfortable in an urban context, he was happiest in the 'artistic' suburb.

A list of the qualities Voysey believed necessary to a house may prove a useful homily for modern designers: 'repose, cheerfulness, simplicity, breadth, warmth, quietness, economy, protection, harmony'. Yet his heyday was brief. His golden age lay between 1885 and 1910. As wealth increased in Edwardian England, architectural fashion moved away from the free style of Voysey and his Arts and Crafts contemporaries towards pompous Neo-Classicism. Refusing to meet the new style and compromise his values, he became poor and, after the First World War, all but forgotten. Never a socialite, he appeared to vanish.

His designs, however, remain unforgettable. The Design Museum show includes fascinating personal memorabilia (previously unseen), his own bed and clock, several chairs, rugs, silverware and a variety of work in other metals ranging from exquisite heart-shaped keys to a brass stove.

The exhibition also includes such surprising designs as those for a telephone kiosk and a 30-storey building in Piccadilly. Each is highly personal and could be the work of no other architect. Appropriately, the one book Voysey wrote was called Individuality.

Even his clothes, as Betjeman discovered, were of his own peculiar design (he loved everything in life to be neat; his lustrous blue suits - worn over dark blue shirts - were without cuffs or lapels: these, he said, could only gather unseemly dust). Voysey wanted to create a perfect domestic world. As the Design Museum exhibition shows, he did get near to perfection (or is it obsession?), but the very fact that he had to labour that heart motif so heavily seems to hint that the pursuit of architectural perfection drives the soul out of building.

Some historians, notably Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, have tried to position Voysey as a pioneer of the Modern Movement (because his houses were white and clean and free, hearts aside, from gratuitous decoration); others have dwelt on his eccentricity or single-mindedness. As this latest exhibition shows, Voysey cannot be so readily pigeon-holed. He remains a fascinating, and hugely influential, outsider.

'C F A Voysey: Heart and Home', 25 January to 24 April, Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1, (071-403 6933); admission pounds 3.50 ( pounds 2.50 concessions), daily, 10.30am to 5.30pm.

(Photographs omitted)

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