ELLE Decoration (UK)
Arts & Crafts hero Charles Francis Annesley Voysey’s wallpapers are making their way back into contemporary homes. Here, we explore the designer’s life and work
In 1927, Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857–1941) looked back on his career at a dinner given to mark his 70th birthday. ‘The public was opposed to birds and, in fact, everything I did,’ he said. ‘My work was never popular…’
Though this seems unduly modest, it’s true that Voysey’s work is hard to categorise; he was variously linked with the Arts & Crafts movement, Gothic design and Modernism. His uncompromising nature made his career as an architect difficult, and he branched out into wallpaper and fabric design chiefly to make ends meet. However, it’s this work for which he’s now best known. There’s a romance to Voysey’s patterns – which are dominated by images of birds, animals and plant forms – that accords with his rustic architectural style. Most of the 50 or so buildings he completed are large houses, with steep pitched roofs, white façades and tall chimneys ( his own house, The Orchard in Chorleywood, is a prime example of his signature aesthetic). They borrow from traditional cottage and farmhouse styles, but with details whittled down to the absolute minimum; a Voysey wallpaper would likely be the most elaborate thing inside them.
Voysey’s unusual output – understated with bursts of whimsy – put him out of step with his contemporaries. Yet today, the contrast feels absolutely right. Whereas a classic Arts & Crafts interior can appear overdone to modern eyes, we now appreciate one beautiful print used to enliven an otherwise simple room. A perfect example is the bathroom in the London home of designer Luke Edward Hall (right), where Voysey’s ‘Apothecary’s Garden’ pattern (sold by Massachusetts-based company Trustworth, £150 per roll; trustworth.com) is teamed with panelling painted in Farrow & Ball’s ‘Pigeon’ and green metro tiles. ‘I’ve always liked
Voysey’s designs – they feel optimistic and very English,’ says Hall. ‘ We used this wallpaper in here because I like bathrooms to feel as comfortable and stylish as every other room in the home, with armchairs, rugs and so on.’
The ‘Apothecary’s Garden’ design, created in 1926 and inspired by 17th-century herbals, features Voysey’s signature birds alongside butterflies, crickets, bluebells and berries. Trustworth stocks several other designs, including the gothic ‘Hemlock’ (1900) and ‘Angelic Forest’ (1927), which show him at his most original. Key to their appeal is the designer’s joyous use of colour. Spring greens, poppy reds and hyacinth blues are applied with a delicate hand: ‘Nature,’ Voysey once said, ‘never allows her colours to quarrel’.
These papers are thus ideally suited to teaming with modern neutrals, although Hall takes a bolder view. ‘I would love to design a room using a Voysey wallpaper and a bright colour on the ceiling,’ he says. ‘His florals would also look great with Italian mid-century furniture and 1970s lighting.’
Other Voysey patterns suggest different possibilities. ‘Lerena’ from Sanderson’s ‘Chiswick Grove’ collection (£60 per roll; stylelibrary.com/sanderson) features a print taken from the Voysey archive of birds, flowers and foliage and comes in soft blues and greens that complement pale wood furniture. The ‘Lioness and Palms’ wallpaper (£140 per roll, Commonroom; commonroom.co) shows yet another face of the artist. Based on a watercolour from 1918, this blue and gold design begs to be paired with dark timber. Whichever you choose, keep it simple – as Voysey once said, ‘Better frank simplicity than sham elaboration’. For more info, read ‘CFA Voysey: Arts & Crafts Designer’ by Karen Livingstone, Max Donnelly and Linda Parry (£40, V&A Books)