With the release of the new film, The Dig (dir. Simon Stone) last month, Timothy Brittain-Catlin, author of The Edwardians and their Houses, considers the unsung star of the piece: C.F.A. Voysey's Norney Grange.
Those who have seen the trailer for the new Netflix film The Dig will have spotted that there is a third celebrity performer in addition to the two ‘above-the-title’ film stars. That is Norney Grange, the house near Shackleford in Surrey that was designed by C.F.A. Voysey for the Rev. Leighton Crane in 1897. Twenty-five years ago, when Ralph Fiennes was first achieving acclaim for his role in Quiz Show, Norney Grange drew attention when it stood in for Ham Spray, the Berkshire home of the writer Lytton Strachey in Christopher Hampton’s film Carrington and the setting for its dramatic denouement.
I’ve not yet seen The Dig, but Norney Grange was well suited to a sumptuous biopic based on the melodramatic lives of Bloomsbury artists and writers. It is an intriguing and complicated house, although unlike any of the human protagonists of the two films it is at the same time deeply satisfying to critics of all tastes. That is because it shows Voysey at his best.
When I came to write The Edwardians and their Houses, I was consciously trying to avoid spelling out again the already well known careers of the leading arts and crafts architects of the Edwardian period. For one thing, this has already been done very well and by some of our greatest architectural historians. Wendy Hitchmough’s 1995 monograph on Voysey, illustrated with fine photography by the late Martin Charles, tells his story brilliantly. But Voysey and only a handful of others of those great names were so full of ideas that it is possible to see their work not only as arts and crafts pioneers but as key figures in quite different ways of looking at the architecture of the time.
Norney Grange is a perfect example of this. For a long time it was best known to the world through the small black and white illustration of its garden front in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design. What he had to say about it left an indelible mark on the history of modernism in Britain and beyond. He wrote of the ‘candour and simplicity of its façade’ and that what impressed him were Voysey’s ‘most progressive motifs – the long-drawn-out window strips and the completely bare triangles of the gables’. And then, of Voysey’s Broadleys on Windermere, completed a year after Norney Grange: ‘From [its] centre bay with its completely unmoulded mullions and transoms, from these windows cut clean and sheer into the wall, access to the architectural style of today could have been direct’. By ‘the architectural style of today’, Pevsner meant the experimental German international modern style of the 1920s and 1930s, which, of course, had started to appear during Voysey’s own working life – to Voysey’s undisguised horror.
What Pevsner was up to was creating the teleological foundation myth of modernism – he was reinventing and reordering the buildings that preceded it as if they were all steps towards the type of architecture he liked best. He also used rhetorical tricks: his ‘architectural style of today’ referred in fact only to a tiny minority of buildings even when the second edition of his book came out in 1949. Yes, squinting at that black and white photo of Norney Grange might well hint somehow at the Bauhaus. So it was a revelation to many when Carrington was released to see the entrance front and sides of the same building: curvaceous Tudor ogee roofs, a mannerist oeil de boeuf window in an ornamental dormer above the front door, Jacobean walls, windows, gables and ironwork.
One of the key discoveries that I made was that the best Edwardian architects had a different attitude to history than we had imagined and were consciously mixing Tudor and Jacobean styles – and sometimes late-seventeenth-century styles as well – together within the same building. In fact the greatest skill, which Voysey excelled at, was in creating satisfied and resolved details where objects from or inspired by these different historical periods collided. It’s important to remember that the idea that old building fabric must be respected when a house is restored, which originates in the founding dogma of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings of 1877, was considered right up until fairly recent times as a marginal and eccentric point of view. Architects of Voysey’s generation found great pleasure in working with and manipulating old pieces of building fabric and often moved them from place to place within a single building or to somewhere else altogether.
Voysey himself was different in that he was mostly designing buildings that were completely new, but the way in which he successfully combined different seventeenth-century-type features under a single roof was astonishing. Historians (myself included) have often been puzzled by the way in which he described his houses as if they were old, peaceful, quiet, cottages when clearly they were not – but I have come to the conclusion that what he was getting at was that they conveyed through their artful simplicity the sense of the warm, comfortable, pleasant, unpretentious Jacobean house inside a modern building. On one occasion when he did remodel an existing house – a small and undistinguished Victorian villa in Fitzjohn’s Avenue, in Hampstead – the brilliant way in which his new work engages with the old is simply breathtaking – or at least it was until a later resident, an architect as it happens, took most of it out in the 1930s. You can still see traces of it, however, in the way in which Voysey’s window and porch emerge excitingly from the unexceptional yellow Victorian brickwork.
There is, then a lot going on in a good Voysey house. Norney Grange couldn’t have been suited better as the setting for the overwrought bohemian menage à trois (or quatre, or cinq) of Edwardian Bloomsbury. Let’s see if it puts in another Oscar-deserving performance in The Dig.
Timothy Brittain-Catlin, February 2021
Images courtesy of the C.F.A. Voysey Society [http://www.voyseysociety.org]
Timothy Brittain-Catlin's recent book, The Edwardians and their Houses is available HERE.
For more content relating to Voysey, see Alec Hamilton's blogpost: 'The Voysey Church that Voysey didn't build'.