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Beneath the Brambles: C.F.A. Voysey in an English Garden

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Beneath the Brambles: C.F.A. Voysey in an English Garden

January 11, 2018

When Gillian Archer and her husband Mark discovered Perrycroft, it was an institution, having housed the Malvern branch of the Boys Brigade for 30 years. With its “rational interiors, verging on open plan,” it is easy to see how the boys fitted into the country house designed by architect C.F.A. Voysey, though the potential of the garden was completely overlooked. After the jungle of saplings and brambles was cleared away, the Archers excavated an Arts and Crafts garden, as rational as the house. We take a tour:

Photography by Jim Powell for Gardenista.

Above: The house is oriented for the best views over the Malvern Hills.
Above: Above: The house is oriented for the best views over the Malvern Hills.

Perrycroft was the first major commission for Charles Francis Annesley Voysey, an under-appreciated visionary who is sometimes known as the “father of the Modernist movement.” This authentically homegrown house, devoid of Victorian eclecticism, was built in 1895, while Frank Lloyd Wright, Edwin Lutyens, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the next great wave of new-style architects, were still teenagers. Perrycroft bears some of Voysey’s lifelong hallmarks, starting with white roughcast walls and green trim.

Autumnal shades of crimson glory vine, Vitis coignetiae.
Above: Autumnal shades of crimson glory vine, Vitis coignetiae.

The unique shade of green was painstakingly researched by the Archers. After some trial and error, they settled on the correct shade. As it is lead based, its yellow aspect is becoming more prominent over the years; had it been mixed with arsenic, commonly used when the house was built, it would be fading to blue.

For more traditional exterior colors, see: The Moody Palette of the English Country Estate.

 The Sunk Garden, a classic component in an Arts and Crafts garden, was built adjacent to the house, offering a distraction from the open landscape.
Above: The Sunk Garden, a classic component in an Arts and Crafts garden, was built adjacent to the house, offering a distraction from the open landscape.

Gillian Archer has created a low-maintenance area within the formal framework by using shrubs that require only occasional attention and allowing herbs to self-seed in the cracks and crevices. Because winds rush up unimpeded from the southwest, hardy coastal plants have been chosen for a loose knot garden, including santolina, lavender (protected at the furthest end), billowing rue, and pink-flowered Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’.

 Above: A bench designed by Gillian Archer using Voysey motifs shelters under a yew wall.
Above: Above: A bench designed by Gillian Archer using Voysey motifs shelters under a yew wall.

The garden is divided into compartments, a practical solution to the problem of wind. Gillian has made an art out of these divisions and windbreaks. Above, the Stipa gigantea grasses shimmer against dark red berberis, backed by a wall of yew, with a beech hedge visible farther up the rise behind that, backed by pines.

The principles of Arts and Crafts gardens, including these green compartments, are very much alive today, yet there is a surprising lack of furniture on offer that is authentic or interesting. The famous Lutyens bench can be a little overbearing. The austere and intriguing benches dotted around Perrycroft, when not built-in (and therefore designed by Voysey), were designed by Gillian Archer, using shapes inspired by woodwork in the house.

 Above: Formidable architectural details at the front of the house, softened by Fatsia and climbing Schisandra sphenanthera.
Above: Above: Formidable architectural details at the front of the house, softened by Fatsia and climbing Schisandra sphenanthera.

C.F.A. Voysey had a style and he stuck to it; although Perrycroft was his first major commission, his ideas were already in full flow. Voysey abhorred dust and any unnecessary decoration that might collect dust; his interiors are so devoid of Victorian detail that they predict Art Deco. Similarly, Voysey the man designed his own shirts and suits, with no dust-collecting lapels or cuffs.

Garden stairs designed by the Archers with beech to the left and yew to the right, enhancing the Voysey atmosphere.
Above: Garden stairs designed by the Archers with beech to the left and yew to the right, enhancing the Voysey atmosphere.

Although the garden at Perrycroft had good bones underneath its weedy wilderness, it is Gillian, an experienced gardener, who has taken it beyond the ambitions of the original owner. The garden falls away behind the house, rising in front of it, yet the matter of getting from A to B is quite painless, aided by innovations such as these wonderful steps. Designed by the Archers, the stairway accommodates wheelbarrows as well as pedestrians.

Uninterrupted views mean unlimited exposure and a belt of trees around the edge of the estate form the first line of defense. Winds are further filtered by yew walls and topiary.
Above: Uninterrupted views mean unlimited exposure and a belt of trees around the edge of the estate form the first line of defense. Winds are further filtered by yew walls and topiary.
Ramparts of yew, with common knapweed growing in the longer grass descending from the terrace.
Above: Ramparts of yew, with common knapweed growing in the longer grass descending from the terrace.

“The yew hedge has been clipped into buttresses to echo the buttresses on the house,” explains Gillian. “Voysey often included buttresses in his architecture, and was also fond of visual jokes; so this is one we thought he might appreciate.”

A built-in bench by the back Smoking Room door.
Above: A built-in bench by the back Smoking Room door.

The design of the house is strikingly chaste, particularly at the back, where there are no full-length glazed doors or windows. The small exit shown here was built more for expedience, since the room behind it was known as the Smoking Room and Library (it is lined with exquisite Voysey-designed bookshelves). Now sandwiched between myrtle and tendrils of Euphorbia wulfenii, this nook would have been a magnet for the Christian youth of the Boys Brigade, whether smoking or not.

Voysey&#8\2\17;s ultra-modern \19th century interiors.
Above: Voysey’s ultra-modern 19th century interiors.

“Never look at an ugly thing twice,” Voysey wrote. “It’s fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences.” A consummate artist and architect, post-William Morris and pre-Frank Lloyd Wright, Voysey designed every aspect of his interiors.

A great influence in Voysey’s avant-garde thinking was his father, an intractable vicar who was given the sack for sharing his views on religious reform. The Reverend set up his own church near Regent Street in London, taking with him some of the liberal elite who would become clients of the younger Voysey.

 For maximum views, the ground floor was given a wide, low, bay window.
Above: For maximum views, the ground floor was given a wide, low, bay window.

Voysey’s design rationale was a victim of its own success. His legacy took an unexpected turn when double storied bay windows, combined with gabled roof and pebbledash walls, became a blueprint for British suburbia.

Lacy fennel at the base of a stone wall.
Above: Lacy fennel at the base of a stone wall.

Perrycroft is open by appointment in May, June, September, and October, as well as several times a year for the National Gardens Scheme. For more information, see Perrycroft.

N.B.: Arts and Crafts gardens continue to inspire:
• Bryan’s Ground: Bloomsbury Revisited on the Edge of Wales.
Jungleland: The Exotic Garden at Great Dixter.
Required Reading: Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst.

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