The Voysey Garden

JEMIMA TAYLOR previews the Trust's June 2006 Walk

During a meeting of the London County Council on the 14th March 1911, the chairman read out a letter containing an offer from politician and ex-council member Emslie J. Horniman:

"Recently I have been able to secure nearly one acre of land, which I consider suitable to lay out as a public garden, with sand-pit, etc., and, having now completed the purchase, I have much pleasure in offering the same to your council, and am ready to make over the freehold, the only condition being that the land be dedicated in perpetuity to the people of London as a recreation-ground.  I propose to clear the land and lay out same at my own expense.." (note 1)

Formal Garden

That acre of land is now the Emslie Horniman Pleasance on the northern edge of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  Emslie Horniman's Pleasance comprised a formal garden and playground; today only the formal garden has survived from the original layout and this was extended and adapted during the twentieth century.  In the 1990s the garden was restored by the RB of Kensington and Chelsea with the support of a lottery grant.

The park presently contains an innovative children's play area, an all-weather floodlit sports area, changing rooms and several works of contemporary arts. The park itself hosts 20,000 people over the August bank holiday when it becomes the official launch pad of the Notting Hill Carnival; but the festival crowds pay scant attention to the Voysey Garden, a small, unusable arts-and-crafts garden at its edge.

Voysey Garden

Arts & Crafts

The British Arts and Crafts Movement arose in the late nineteenth century as a reaction against the mass production techniques of the Victorian Industrial Revolution.

Its best known exponent was the artist William Morris, whose followers celebrated individual design and craftsmanship.  They drew inspiration from the richly detailed gothic style.  Interior walls were either whitewashed or covered in wallpaper depicting medieval themes.


Emslie Horniman was the grandson of John Horniman, founder of the wealthy tea-importers dynasty and son of Frederick J. Horniman who had presented the Horniman Museum at Forest Hill to the LCC ten years earlier in 1901.  Philanthropy was in the air at this time and the Hornimans were in a position to give.  Emslie Horniman lived in Chelsea but was inspired to create the park which today bears his name in North Kensington by a local nun, Sister Ruth, who worked with the poor of Kensal Town.

Emslie Horniman was interested in the arts, having studied at the Slade, and gave the commission to design the park to the architect Charles Voysey.  (Voysey had previously designed a country house for him and had reworked the interior of his Chelsea town house.)  Voysey was going through a professional 'quiet spell' at the time and needed the work.

Charles Francis Annesley Voysey was one of the most successful architects of his day, and most certainly one of the most well known of that era.  His style has been described as a genius of simplicity and integrity.  Voysey was a leading proponent of English Gothic revivalism (which he applied to houses) and he spent the early part of his career establishing his own practice.  His elegant drawings, which were widely admired and published, are now held at the Victoria and Albert museum, as part of the RIBA collections.

Between 1890 and 1900, he was very successful; but by 1900 the Gothic style was becoming less popular and Voysey's rustic, rural vernacular became unfashionable.  Very influential on later generations of architects, Charles Voysey was a purist and high-minded, believing that good design was a moral imperative and that simple design with good quality materials and vernacular references equated with ideological probity.

Voysey was also a passionate individualist who abhorred the influence of collectivism on architecture - an impact which he believed was exemplified by town planning.  According to Voysey, identical living spaces (like the Victorian terrace) restricted people's freedom by repressing their individuality, which caused them to rebel.

"No two leaves on any tree are ever alike.  Variety is nature's law.  Thank heaven men are not all alike... why then force us into symmetrical streets and houses, or preconceived types of houses for supposed typical needs?  Why make us all behave alike, when, by our very natures, we are forced to feel differently...  The advocates of collectivism and Government control start with the assumption that man is bound to go wrong if left to his own devices.  And upon this evil premise all their systems are based; and the great army of officials with their acres of blue books and bylaws is bred and born, inevitably producing anarchy or rebellion," he wrote. (note 2)

By designing a small formal garden for his friend, patron and politician he was able to confront the town planners with their municipal parks.  The garden he designed for Horniman was aimed exclusively at old people and children and was quite deliberately called a pleasance, an old word for a public garden.  This reflected Voysey's romantic ideals: calling it a park might be too like something a town planner would do.  Emslie Horniman's Pleasance comprised a formal garden and playground and from the original layout only the former remains.  The present Emslie Horniman's Pleasance park has been extended and adapted over the years and received £2.5m of lottery money for restoration in the 1990s.

Madeleine Agar

The Voysey garden is a walled garden. The walls are rendered in rough white concrete and in the middle is a flower bed surrounded by a moat.  The original planting scheme was designed by Madeleine Agar and comprised a herbaceous border with one hundred types of herbaceous plant.

Local authorities do not, generally, have the horticultural skills or the necessary continuity to maintain this kind of planting today and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is slowly simplifying it, using a limited palette of perennials and grasses.

The flower bed and moat are overhung by an an oak pergola, up which roses grow.  All this is surrounded by water in which water lilies should (and will) be growing.  At either end of the garden there are covered seating areas that span the whole width of the garden and are protected from the sun and rain.  From here the garden can be peacefully contemplated... or babies can sleep in prams.

Voysey's own description of the garden conveys the simplicity he was aiming for:

"with the idea of securing brightness, the new boundary fence walls and shelters are built of brick, roughcast in cement and to be kept lime-washed in white.  They thus form a good background for the flowers, which are arranged on an oak pergola, flanking the oak bridge and all around the waterway, the latter being provided with clay holes for the water plants."

Robust Construction

The simple and robust construction of Voysey's original garden withstood nearly a century of neglect.  When the garden was refurbished in 1996, the walls were re-rendered, the pergola secured and flowers replanted just like Agar's scheme - this lasted about a minute.  Since then it has not been touched for a decade apart from some adjustments to the planting.

Sadly Voysey's formal garden has been closed to the public in recent years due to its extraordinary value and vulnerability to graffiti, vandalism and abuse - problems which plague all inner city parks.  (An expression of repression, Voysey might have called this.)  A garden owned by the state, designed for the public but impracticable for the moment, as it needs permanent and continuous surveillance.

The RB of Kensington and Chelsea intend to open Voysey's garden on a limited basis in 2006 and it can always be viewed on demand.  On the 28th June 2006 London Parks and Gardens Trust members can look around this unique legacy of our landscape heritage from one of Britain's most influential architects.

Voysey Garden, rendered wall

note 1 - From a description of the garden and how it came about.  Written by Laurence Gomme, Clerk of London County Council 16th May 1914 four days before the official opening of the garden. (return to text)

note 2 - Gebhard D, CFA Voysey.  Henessy and Ingalls. USA.  1975.  In Voysey's own writings on town planning. (return to text)