In Part 1 this week, Lucy Greenslade visits two houses in Wandsworth on the trail of C.F.A. Voysey (1857-1941), architect and designer of furniture and textiles.
I wanted to link the word ‘vernacular’ – the language spoken by the people of the country – with Charles Voysey, an architect still best known as a designer of English country houses. Not all his houses were located in rural landscapes but you could say he designed them as if they were. With the exception of two town houses in Knightsbridge, Voysey didn’t do ‘urban’. The two buildings I have visited this week are both on the edges of Victorian suburbs and both face wooded Commons. ‘Dixcot’ – at Nº 8, North Drive, SW16, – looks over Tooting Bec Common and The White Cottage in Lyford Road, SW18, addresses a quiet corner of Wandsworth Common. Both appear to be detached and singular, havens of calm domesticity, remote from the busy streets, squares and terraces not so far away in Battersea, Balham or Clapham.
Considering that Voysey built no houses himself after 1918, his influence over English suburban architecture in the 1920s and 1930s became quite extraordinary. You could say that Voysey’s architecture was “truly suburban” only in the sense of using traditional materials and being suitable for low-density housing. A large part of his later appeal was that he worked in what was considered to be an authentically ‘English’ style and that was what developers were eager to copy. It wasn’t Voysey’s fault that the architects of suburbia built row after row of near-identical semi-detached houses in what became known as the ‘Tudorbethan’ style (falsely half-timbered and sporting leaded glass in their casement windows). What these ‘semis’ offered was the illusion of living in country cottages. The houses appeared to be ‘traditionally crafted’ and – ideally – came with neat hedges and lawns and roses growing around the Victorian front door. Estate agents call it ‘kerb appeal’.
On the surface, Voysey’s creations are deceptively simple. He believed that the richness of a design should be expressed in its form and minimal details, not in applied decorations. His houses often feature roughcast render on the outside of brick walls and massive chimney stacks piercing sweeping roofs. They do not display the overtly classical proportions expected by many of his contemporaries. His period front doors and windows give horizontal not vertical emphasis to each elevation. He did not use elaborately decorated carved stone pediments and his roofs are not hidden behind straight parapet walls. He used buttresses rather than pilasters to divide and give order to his elevations. His furniture too was simple and functional. He preferred to leave wood with its natural finish rather than covered with paints or stains and varnishes.
English Heritage describes this as:
“A 2-storey house, 3-bays wide, with stone dressings and hipped slate roof, the quadruple casement windows have stone mullions and leaded lights. The centre projects as a square bay rising through the eaves into a third-storey belvedere. The asymmetrically-placed 12-panelled London door, its top 3 panels glazed, is sheltered by a broad flat hood.”
In Part 2, Lucy pedals on through tempest, storm and flood to visit Chiswick and Hampstead…
Bespoke Front Door.