Saturday, December 3, 2016


A Georgian favourite

St Swithun’s, Worcester, is one of my favourite Georgian churches. A typical town church, it’s hemmed in on all sides by streets and buildings – and by its 15th-century west tower, which is the only surviving part of the earlier church that stood on the site. The present St Swithun’s was built in 1734–6 to designs by Thomas and Edward Woodward of Chipping Campden, who also refaced the tower and gave it a round-arched doorway.

In this as in many 18th-century churches, it’s the interior that I particularly like, a welcoming space filled with natural light. The virtually untouched collection of box pews fit the nave beautifully, some facing towards the altar, some at the back facing inwards towards the aisle; there’s also a west gallery,* an impressive three-decker pulpit, and some terrific ironwork.† As you take all this in, your eye moves upwards towards the curving plaster ceiling. This is a beguiling confection, its ribs and corbels evoking Gothic architecture, while its roundels and garlands have a classical feel. Its pale white plasterwork reflects the natural light from the big windows down on to the pews, increasing the splendour of the interior.

My admiration for this church meant I was sad to read on social media the other day that rain has penetrated the roof of St Swithun’s, damaging the lovely plaster ceiling. This ceiling is more vulnerable because, apparently, there are no nibs or keys§ attaching the plasterwork firmly to the wooden laths that should be supporting it. The Churches Conservation Trust, who look after this church, are of course aware of the problem and are on the case. There is a fund-raising scheme in progress at the moment to obtain funds not only for retiling the roof and other repairs, but also to create craft skills apprenticeships, and to make the building available for artistic exhibitions and performances. As usual, the Trust deserve out support.

The partly-gilded ironwork supporting structure of the altar, St Swithun’s, Worcester

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*This gallery is built up against the west wall, which is also the outer wall of the tower, the diagonal buttresses of which are still visible in the interior.
†The ironwork includes not only the altar that I illustrate but also an ornate sword-rest rising from the mayor’s chair – a subject for a future post, perhaps.
§Keys or nibs are the bits of base-coat plaster that the plasterer pushes between the laths to ‘key’ the plaster to the woodwork.


Hels said...

I am very glad the curving plaster ceiling was originally (or later) created with pale white plaster work. I suspect dark church interiors were intentionally designed that way to put parishioners in a serious frame on mind. Splendid, light-filled interiors might have allowed the parishioners to think of pleasure and relaxation, rather than concentrating on sin and salvation.

Francesca said...

Very sad to hear that rain penetrated the roof of St Swithun’s and caused damage to the plaster ceiling. You're quite right in saying that the lack of nibs or keys attaching the plasterwork to the wooden laths would have made it particularly vulnerable. Hopefully the Churches Conservation Trust will be able to raise enough funds to get it fixed in 2017! Regardless, a brilliant blog post, thank you.