The Voysey church that Voysey didn’t build
In 1973 John Betjeman was the unlikely, ramshackle Poet Laureate. For his £5000 a year, and a butt of sack (720 bottles of sherry), he was a distinct disappointment – at least, as composer of occasional verse for royal occasions.
He was not nearly serious enough. His thing was fun – Betjeman was an entertainer, and his medium was telly. His programmes are riveting even now – there are several on YouTube. But, at bottom, he was an architectural historian, and a good one. Not a glum one like Professor Pevsner, but a merry one, and full of knowledge, like Alec Clifton-Taylor, Ian Nairn or Gavin Stamp (all gone). He was a taster, a savourer, an amateur of buildings. He responded to them as one might to a landscape or a tree – he was emotional, visceral, interested in pleasure.
Betjeman’s greatest TV work was 1973’s ‘Metroland’ for the BBC (view here).
In this canter through northwest London, along the Metropolitan line, he first introduced us (me at least) to C F A Voysey – the man who invented the Englishman’s idea of roses-round-the-door sentimental suburbia. His signatures were heart-shaped holes in window shutters, cat-slide roofs, white harled asymmetric façades, and green paintwork. Betjeman found Voysey’s influence all the way along the line, right out to Chesham and Amersham. Not that Voysey was in any way sentimental – rather the opposite. But Betjeman made you feel as if he was rather a jolly cove, full of whimsy and caprice; a chap it would be fun to have your house designed by.
In reality, I think Voysey was a bit of a tartar. The kind of architect who wouldn’t let you hang your own pictures on the walls he had designed.
Voysey has acquired a sort of mythic status among fanciers of Arts & Crafts houses – the acme of the Artsy-Craftsy, with a visual language so strong and idiosyncratic, it crops up in faint and misty echoes in suburban houses even now from Hendon to Harrogate. He was a brilliant draughtsman, and, more important, a mellifluous self-publicist. The Studio was full of his articles and drawings from the start. He and Baillie Scott (who also never built a church) must have seemed, to the artistic readers of that kind of journal, the supreme exponents of terribly good taste, sophisticated simplicity and aesthetic rectitude in domestic arrangements. Lutyens came close latterly – but he became a public man, repository of national mourning and imperial pomp. Other house architects never developed quite such a powerful ‘brand’ as Voysey – Ernest Newton, E J May, E S Prior: all good stuff, but nothing to write home about. Edgar Wood was powerful too – but never ventured far from Middleton. Guy Dawber? Really a Cotswolds man. No, Voysey is the nonpareil.
The thing is – Voysey never designed a church. Oh dear.
It means that my book – Arts & Crafts Churches – to be published by Lund Humphries in September (delayed from June by coronavirus) – does not and cannot include a church by Voysey, the architect who, for many, defines Arts & Crafts architecture. Even its apotheosis.
But, wait. Help is at hand. For there is a Voysey church. It is just that it is not by Voysey!
It is this. The Chapel at Mount Vernon Hospital, Northwood, Rickmansworth HA6 2RN (1902-4), designed by the hospital’s architect, Frederick Wheeler (1853-1931). His only other church design is the humble, rather workaday and incomplete St James the Great, Littlehampton.
Mount Vernon Chapel stands, oddly imposing though tiny, on a slope amounting to an eminence, on the forgotten edge of a car park, with brambles encroaching from below. It would not look out of place in Darmstadt or a Vienna suburb.
When I went to see it in 2019 – twice: I only got inside the second time – it was a poor lorn creature, unwanted, unused and with a deeply uncertain future. It reminded me of Miss Havisham’s cake – sweet, ravaged, and powerfully evocative of what-might-have-been. Chances are it is probably no worse off now. Hospitals have other things on their minds.
As soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘Voysey’. I have no idea whether Wheeler knew or admired Voysey – though Voysey lived on the Metropolitan line, at Chorleywood, just two stops further on from Northwood, at The Orchard, the house he built for himself in 1899. Whatever the relationship, if any, this is the most Voysey church in England. (I wonder if Voysey ever saw it?)
Stylistically, it reflects some aspects of Art Nouveau – but it has a note of English baroque too, and glimmers of Henry Wilson intensity in some of the interior fittings.
The hospital was built as the country branch of the North London Consumption Hospital, 1900-5. The chapel was the last building built on the site. After the rigours of designing the entire hospital, this little chapel was clearly Wheeler’s one opportunity for unwonted creativity – a bel esprit like a lamb gambolling among sober ewes.
It was never consecrated. It was used regularly until the 1960s, by which time new TB treatments meant fewer long-term in-patients, so less need for a chapel. It was used for just one marriage. Then it fell into disuse, and was gradually overgrown with bushes. The roof leaked, and there was no heating.
In 1988 the Gray Cancer Research Laboratory, whose headquarters were in a brutal 1970s building next door, converted the chapel into a lecture room and library. The congregation seating was removed, and library shelves inserted all around the walls: they were not fixed permanently to the walls, and they conceal a bright apple-green tiled dado, which appears to survive more or less intact behind them. Retractable screens, presumably for slide shows and films, were installed in large but discreet wooden casings at the west end, in front of the organ.
About 2009 the Gray Laboratory left, and the chapel became a store. Up until 2018, it was used by the local NHS Oncology Department for their records (the hospital is the main cancer treatment centre for north London and Hertfordshire). Then the records were dispersed to other repositories, and, as far as I know now, the chapel now stands empty.
The NHS has no use for the building, but knows it cannot simply be allowed to fall down – it is Grade II*. The plan – no more than talk in 2019 – was to redevelop this part of the site (there is about 20 acres of potential development land to the south of the chapel). But the NHS is stretched in so many other ways now. An unwanted chapel is hardly likely to attract any attention for many months to come. And there seems to be no diocesan connection.
All is not well structurally. There is evidence of subsidence, especially the dropping away of a concrete step to the vestry on the south east corner, and cracks over the east window, clearly visible from the inside, though not externally. At least one of the battered buttresses also has a crack, as has the chimney.
It is a touchingly pretty building, in a rather theatrical taste, and romantically placed on its sloping site. It seems to have been funded independently of the hospital, and is therefore, perhaps at the bidding of a benefactor, full of unnecessarily sweet and costly detail, such as the green-blue enamel medallions in the door hinges.
Some time in 2018, English Heritage put some images of the interior (as it was in 1905) on their Viewfinder website. Alas, the interior is now pretty ravaged. There is no altar, communion rail, choir stalls or lectern. The chancel screen survives, but damaged. The rood – removed from (or not yet present on) the screen in 1905 – was found in the vestry. The chairs have long gone. Four of the six lamps were stolen in 2019. And an effort was made by the thieves to remove the organ pipes, though only one was displaced – they are not as valuable as the thieves hoped. Thankfully, the roof is tiles, not lead.
One fine day, someone may be in a position to do something about it. Meanwhile it stands as a tantalising suggestion of a direction in ecclesiastical architecture that nobody quite had the oomph to follow.
Hang on! The cognoscenti will protest that, although Voysey never built a church, he did design one private chapel. Well spotted.
It was for Lady Somerset at the house Voysey designed for her in 1904, Higham, near Woodford, Essex. David Cole’s book of Voysey drawings shows the original designs, with a chapel to the full height of the house, of three bays, and with an unelaborated cross on the east end gable. Alas, no plan has come to light for this part of the house.
In the event a rather less splendid house was built (not in stone, but rendered), though still with a chapel (from the large cross on the right), though clearly much smaller.
A rather splendid blog on the Woodford Historical Society's page, in response to a request from Richard Hollis of the Voysey Society about the house in the summer of 2014, sent me to the ‘excellent German archive’ on the Voysey Society website, and there is to be found a scan of the revised plan of the house, confirming the plan for a chapel (with seating for 11) bottom right. Wouldn’t it be marvellous to find an interior elevation! The house became a children’s hospice – much altered and impossible to visit.
Chris Pond, Chairman of Loughton Historical Society, wrote, ‘The house is in the 2005 Pevsner revision by Bridget Cherry. There is also a Voysey gate lodge. Both dwellings have been altered, the main house after arson some 30 years ago. I visited it when Sir Stuart Mallinson, the Methodist timber magnate, lived there, and thought it magnificent. I’m not surprised at all the two are unlisted. Waltham Forest LBC owned the house from ca 1974 and are quite likely to have wanted it kept unlisted… It is the children’s hospice and although considerably altered from the Voysey drawings, it does have vestigial design familiarity. The …lodge … is much more likely to be closer to the original drawings, as owners often did not bother to impose their perspective on secondary dwellings. This is in itself very interesting as this is a building not previously known about. Both are also exactly where one would have expected them to be – namely next to the original estate house – now the girl’s school.’
So, it seems that, while Voysey never got to see a church of his own design built, he got tantalisingly close.
And, just to be tediously diligent, I should record that Voysey worked on another church building – the one that became his father’s Theistic Church, an 1804 Presbyterian Church in Swallow Street, London, that was a drill hall when Voysey’s father took the lease in 1885. Voysey’s records (in his Black Book) list these works: 1897 repairs; 1901 removing spire; 1905 outside painting and repairs; 1908 painting and repairs inside and outside; 1909 memorial tablet for Martin R. Smith; 1909 sepulchre on bracket for R.E. Case.
He designed (1927) the reredos at Porlock church, and there is an unexecuted design for a chapel in Scotland (view here). To which Richard Hollis adds these ‘minor commissions’: the mausoleum for the Earl of Lovelace at Ockham; a chapel at the Alms House at Howard Hospital at Castle Rising; an altar and cross for the Mission House of Trinity College, Cambridge in London. ‘The one I would really like to track down is simply noted as at a Church near Beaconsfield (1921) when stalls for the clergy and choir were seemingly fitted.’
But no church.
I have discussed Voysey with other members of the Voysey Society – his religious outlook is intriguing. He did not have much time for the church – hardly surprising, as his clergyman father was ejected from his curacy for preaching against eternal damnation. But he was very interested in God. It may come as a surprise to find that he had this to say to Pevsner:
This new architecture cannot last. The architects have no religion. They
have nothing exalted which they could try to approach; they are like
designers who draw flowers and trees without remembering and
honouring Him who created them.
(Nikolaus Pevsner, ‘C F A Voysey’ in Studies in Art, Architecture and Design: Victorian and After (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), first published in Elseviers Maandschrift, May 1940).
Perhaps nobody had the courage to ask the fiery son of a controversial priest to build a church. Perhaps they did, and were turned down. Perhaps the price wasn’t right. Did Voysey ever draw an ecclesiastical design when he sat alongside his friends Walter Cave and Charles Spooner when they were young men together in in the Quarto Imperial Club in the 1890s? – I don’t know.
So near and yet so far! Since 2005 I have been visiting, researching, and writing about Arts & Crafts churches – first in a BA dissertation, then an MA, and finally a DPhil (from 2009 to 2016). In 2018 I turned all my diligent, scholarly research into a big, fat art history book that would, I hope, bring the buildings together (for the first time in a single volume), and explain them – and make the ideas and the fun intelligible and accessible. Well, one tries. It is now due to see the light in September 2020.
Images courtesy of the author.
Hardback • 352 Pages • Size: 250 × 190 mm
250 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781848223219 • Publication: September 24, 2020