Friday, February 26, 2016
For a while now I’ve been planing to visit Berkley church, near Frome in Somerset. Finding myself not far away the other day, I pulled up outside and walked up the churchyard path as children played noisily in the nearby school yard. Church, school, and manor house all together: all very fitting. But my progress was blocked by the iron barred doorway in the tower, which was clearly locked, as was the vestry door to one side. What to do? I peered through the bars and caught sight, on the noticeboard inside the tower and just visible from where I stood, of a notice saying that a key was kept at the school. So I retraced my steps and, now armed with a bunch of keys, walked back, taking in the building for a second time. A very plain little church – a whitewashed stone box fronted by a peculiar tower that starts monumentally at the bottom like Hawksmoor and finishes on the skyline more delicately, like Wren.
None of this prepares the visitor for what’s inside this building of the 1740s: a square space with four Ionic columns, soffitted ceiling and dome, very much in the classical tradition and not unlike the sort of thing you might find inside a small Wren church – except that the delicate plasterwork is quite unlike anything produced by Wren or Hawksmoor. This filigree of shells, C-scrolls, wheat ears, and foliage is the sort of thing you hardly ever see in an English country church, not that often in an English country house. I would't call it typically English, apart from the palette, which reminds me of Wedgwood pottery. The ceiling is a glorious one-off, and a visual shock after the austere exterior.
It took me a while to take it in – and this while I spent partly flat on my back trying to take photographs, partly craning my neck and just staring at it. Pevsner marvelled at it too, calling it ‘sumptuous and curiously worldly’. He, and most others, think that the designer was Thomas Prowse, the local lord of the manor, who was an amateur architect. He doesn’t speculate about the person who created the plasterwork, but Prowse would have been able to draw on various talented plaster workers who were active at this time in Bath or Bristol. Among the obvious candidates are the picturesquely named Thomas Lightoler and Thomas Stocking, with Stocking perhaps the more likely because he worked at Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire, where Prowse advised another gentleman amateur architect, Sanderson Miller, on the design.* Stocking, ‘stuko man’, was also employed at Corsham Court and other West Country houses.†
It would be fascinating to know for sure who produced this memorable ceiling, but it’s good too simply to have been able to look at it for a while. I have said, only partly in jest, that there are some buildings that make me ‘lie on my back and purr’. This one did so – and did so literally when it came to lying down.¶
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*Michael McGarvie, St Mary’s Berkley: A History and Guide (1992), available in the church, is helpful here.
†The phrase ‘stuko man’ is used in the contemporary Day Book at Corsham, suggesting that Stocking was well up on the latest patent plasters. The material at Berkley, however, seems to have been old-fashioned plaster, bound with hair, rather than one of the patent stucco mixes.
¶A strip of carpet on the floor made this experience slightly more comfortable then it might have been.