Variations on a theme: two armchairs designed by C.F.A. Voysey (1857-1941)
C.F.A Voysey’s armchair, with a heart-shape in the back, is one of his most recognisable designs. The armchair with rush seat (above) is a close variant of this widely published model, which is itself known in various forms; see, for instance, Wendy Hitchmough, C.F.A. Voysey, London, 1995, p. 155, fig. 28, showing examples in an interior at Voysey’s The Homestead, Frinton-on-Sea.
A version dating from 1906, with a leather seat, is in the collection of the Art Gallery and Museum Brighton, and another, also with a leather seat is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. An example with slight variations in the design of the arms, is reproduced in Karen Livingstone, Max Donnelly and Linda Parry, C.F.A. Voysey Arts & Crafts Designer, 2016, fig. 249. The chair below is originally from a set of eight, one of which is in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art. Other identical examples, including from the set of eight, are noted in English and American private collections. In addition to a variety of related chairs without arms, a lower and broader armchair variant also exists; see, for instance, Greenslade Taylor Hunt, 15 March 2015, lot 625 (a set of four), and Livingstone et al., fig. 253.
A design drawing for Voysey’s iconic heart-shaped back armchair, dated 1908, is in the collection of the RIBA (see below).
The present chair, which was sold at Bonhams (London), 2 April 2014, lot 112 (now acquired from ourselves for a private collection) varies slightly from all other recorded versions. The most obvious difference is the shortened terminations to the vertical supports to the back. There are also overall differences in the dimensions: the ex-Bonhams chairs has the overall size 99 (from floor to top of vertical back supports) x 61.5 (across widest point of arms) x 40.9 cm (depth from front of arms to reverse of back), whereas the other measures 101 x 61.3 x 40.8 cm; the top of the arms are 1.5 cm higher on the ex-Bonhams chair.
In terms of construction, it is evident that both chairs were made in the same workshop; the manufacture is identical, as is the cut of oak, although clearly not from the same trees. Notable features on both chairs are the chamfering in front of the back rail; the pegged attachment of the arms, and the brackets and supports for the rush seats. Also, the angled slope of the back frame is virtually identical. Several of those characteristics are hidden from normal view and therefore could not be copied without access to the same workshop templates.
By contrast, a pair of armchairs derived from the same model and thought to have been manufactured for Liberty & Co lacked, for example, the revealed dovetails fixing the backs and the subtly shaped arms (Sotheby’s, London, 24 February 2016, lot 83).
Close examination of the terminations to the back supports on the ex-Bonhams chair, surely manufactured by Voysey’s favoured cabinet-maker F.C. Nielsen, reveals no sign of alteration, thus implying that the unusual shorter length is deliberate, and suggesting a specific request by Nielsen’s original client. Evidence to support this hypothesis is found in a photograph of the Drawing Room at Voysey’s Garden Corner (1906). Either side of a doorway is a sidechair variant of the present armchairs; one has longer finials and the other shorter. We are grateful to David Metcalfe, researcher at the Voysey Society, for this reference.