Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857-1941): furniture

Voysey’s furniture makes a distinctive and distinguished contribution to turn-of-the-century interiors. His designs, materials and production methods epitomize the dichotomy of the Arts & Crafts Movement’s between tradition and modernity; between individual craftsmanship and machine production. In the later 1890s and early 1900s, the most fertile period for Voysey as a furniture designer, his desire to create a gesamtkunstwerk has parallels with the approach of British contemporaries such as Hugh Mackay Baillie Scott and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

NOTE: Click individual images to see full-size picture

While Voysey furniture was often supplied for houses and interiors that he designed, some contemporary archival photographs can be misleading as not all commissions were ultimately furnished as the designer would have wished. What Voysey did regularly supply, however, was fitted furniture; examples of this remain in situ at The Homestead (fig. 2).

Voysey’s furniture has what he himself described as a ‘sense of proportion and puritanical love of simplicity’. To this, with regard to his largely untreated oak chairs and cabinets, should be added a careful selection of fine quality timber, and the engagement of able workshops to execute his subtle designs to the highest standard of manufacture (figs. 3 and 4). Makers closely associated with Voysey, and whom he trusted to execute his carefully detailed drawings, included Frederick Coote and Frederik Cristen Nielsen (both in London), and Arthur Simpson of Kendal

Charles Voysey Fitted Furniture
2 Fitted dressing table and drawers at The Homestead
Voysey Cupboard Drawing
3 Cupboard for C.F.A. Voysey (RIBA, London)
Voysey Cupboard, Oak, with brass escutcheon
4 Cupboard Oak, with brass escutcheon English, circa 1904 51" x 46" x 21” at the top, and 51” x 47” x 22” at the base Provenance: C.F.A. Voysey

Apart from special commissions, Voysey produced a relatively limited range of furniture designs, and certainly recycled these familiar pieces for different patrons. Evidence for this is to be found in contemporary archival images, where the same models appear repeatedly. His well-known armchair with his leitmotif heart in the back (fig. 5) features in many room settings, but also varies somewhat in precise detail and size; the chair also exists in variants without arms; with rush seats and leather seats.

Voysey Pair of Armchairs
5 Pair of armchairs Oak, with the original rush seats (private collection)

Little furniture designed by Voysey dates from before the 1890s, with his most productive period being from around 1895-1910, corresponding with his greatest success as an architect. The idiosyncratic ‘Swan’ chair (Simpson, p.74, fig. C.1), was designed in the mid 1880s, but perhaps not made, for W. Ward Higgs, until around 1896.

Case furniture ranges from the famous brass mounted ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’ cabinet, around 1899 (Donnelly, fig. 231), through the plainer oak sideboard from the Essex and Suffolk Equitable Insurance Company, around 1906 (Donnelly, fig. 276), to such modest creations as a low chest made around 1900 (Donnelly, fig. 243).

The unusually elaborate metalwork on the ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’ cabinet is probably by Voysey’s regular collaborator Thomas Elsley & Co. Metalwork, as modest as elongated knobs on drawers or pretty pierced keys, was integral to the design of Voysey’s furniture.

Tables vary from the imaginative circular tables made by Nielsen around 1903, with characteristically chamfered legs, meeting at a central sphere before turning through ninety degrees and arching to the underside of the top (fig. 6) to the designer’s own plain drawing table (Donnelly, fig. 240).

Voysey Two Tables
6 Two tables, contemporary photograph. From the collection of the late John Brandon-Jones (RIBA, London)
Carpet (detail) Manufactured by Alexander Morton & Co.
7 Carpet (detail) Manufactured by Alexander Morton & Co. (1844-1923) Hand-knotted on woollen warp 393.7 x 157.5 cm Irish (Donegal), 1901-08

Voysey designed furniture for many purposes. The range includes simple boxes, and elaborate writing cabinets (see Donnelly, fig. 214, for a ‘desktop case’ recently placed on long term loan to the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh), a gilded oak mirror, plain toilet mirrors, and all manner of bedroom furniture. He also produced designs for commercial manufacturers, such as the London firm J.S. Henry. Most of his furniture, including his piano cases (for Collard & Collard), has minimal adornment and little colour.  This applies to some of his clock cases too, but in some of these Voysey breaks out into the use of rich materials, such as ebony and ivory (Donnelly, fig. 259), as well as joyful colour (Donnelly, figs. 217 & 218). In the famous clock case design we see this austere form not only in oak and aluminium, but also painted with cypress trees in front of a river landscape at sunset, and inscribed ‘Time & Tide Wait for No Man’.  On this object  we find a bridge between Voysey as the ‘puritanical’ furniture designer, and the creator of playful textiles, wallpapers and carpets (fig. 7).

References:

Duncan Simpson, ‘Furniture’, in John Brandon-Jones and others, C.F.A. Voysey, architect and designer, 1857-1941 (Lund Humphries, 1978), pp.67-95.

Max Donnelly, ‘Furniture’, in Karen Livingstone et al., C.F.A. Voysey: Arts & Crafts Designer (V&A Publishing, 2016), pp.152-229.

This note is edited from Martin Levy, ‘Voysey as a designer of furniture’ (January 2019), on the website of the C.F.A. Voysey Society (https://voyseysociety.org)

Door catch and hinge at The Homestead