Amateur extravagance in the Welsh Marches

I have long fancied that one of the principal drivers of architectural development in Victorian England was boredom. Young men who had come into contact with the ideas of, say, Ruskin or the Tractarian Movement while up at Oxbridge or in the capital then found themselves out in the sticks on inheriting the family estate (in the case of the oldest son) or taking up a living as an Anglican rector (in the case of their younger siblings). With little to occupy them but plenty of private wealth, it is not surprising that the impulse appeared to embark on construction projects to advertise the ideals and preoccupations that they had embraced. This resulted in a steady flow of commissions to architects who had made the right connections as specialists in churches or country houses. But those bold enough to take matters into their own hands went one step further and became amateur architects.

Llanyblodwel, the former schoolmaster’s house (left) and former school (right), pictured from the angle that most effectively omits some unsympathetic late C20 and C21 century additions and alterations.

There are numerous such figures and they represent some of the most intriguing minor masters that Victorian Britain produced. Usually their output is small, concentrated in their locality and often idiosyncratic to the point of outright eccentricity. Few people exemplify this phenomenon better than John Parker (1798-1860). He was born the second son of Thomas Netherton Parker (d. 1854) of Sweeney Hall, located a short distance to the south of Oswestry in Shropshire. He received an education at Eton and Oriel College, Oxford, somewhere along the line picking up an interest in Gothic architecture, along with botany and topography. He also revealed himself as a gifted watercolourist and draughtsman, pursuits which went hand in hand with his interests. Some time after receiving his MA in 1825, he was ordained and returned to the Welsh Borders. His first living was that of St Llwchaiarn’s Church in Llanmerewig, a village in Montgomeryshire to the northwest of Newtown, which he occupied from 1827 to 1844.

Lancaster from the south, a view by John Parker from his album of views of the English Lakes of 1825, now held in the National Library of Wales (public domain)

Beginning in 1833, he remodelled a humble, single-cell, chiefly 13th century church reputedly founded in c. 575 by its patron saint. The results were startlingly original. First, he refurnished the interior, during the course of which he dismantled one of the medieval rood screens that abound in central Wales (all of which he depicted, leaving a valuable record of one of the area’s great glories), using the components to construct an enormous pulpit. In 1838-1839, he added the alarming west tower, crazily tall in relation to its width. This was followed in 1840 by the south porch with its richly moulded portal and then in 1843 by the adjacent semi-dormer with a vesica-shaped opening and reliefs of Celtic knots. Parker’s extravagances were not to the taste of later generations and unfortunately the interior was reordered in 1892 by Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930), when most of his furnishings disappeared. While busy at Llanmerewig, Parker advised on the construction of Holy Trinity Church, Oswestry, incorporating a vaulted apse in this Georgian Gothick preaching box of 1836-1837 by Thomas Penson (1790-1859).

St Llwchaiarn’s Church in Llanmerewig (Wikipedia Commons)

In 1844, Parker became rector of Llanyblodwel, a village in the picturesque Tanat Valley to the southwest of Oswestry, only a few miles from his childhood home. St Michael’s Church – evidently the double-naved type common in northeast Wales – was in a poor condition when he took up the living and he spent most of the time between then and his death comprehensively remodelling it. He financed the work himself, which is perhaps why it was carried out in a protracted and piecemeal fashion. An elaborate south porch with a cusped portal and vault within sporting carved and painted bosses, ribs and flying ribs is dated 1849. Another porch, with an even more vividly cusped portal, appeared on the north side in 1851. The south side of the nave acquired new windows with thistly tracery and curious little dormers familiar from Llanmerewig. But the pièce de résistance is the outlandish west tower, added in 1855-1856. It stands a short distance from the church, to which it is connected by a short vestibule bearing the carved imprecation ‘FROM LIGHTNING AND TEMPEST / FROM EARTHQUAKE AND FIRE / GOOD LORD DELIVER US’. It is a daring piece of form – octagonal and therefore contiguous with the spire above, which has concave faces that Parker claimed made it stronger than a spire with flat faces. The fenestration is treated as staggered tiers of lancets and lucarnes, making it more like a continuous pattern. The interior has elaborate painted decoration and furnishings also designed by Parker, including a reredos that he carved himself.

St Michael’s Church, Llanyblodwel – general view of the interior looking east (Richard Ghorbal)

Llanyblodwel church is well known – at any rate, it features in England’s Thousand Best Churches by Simon Jenkins – and has been written up in numerous sources. For that reason and the fact that it was not possible to arrange access to the interior on the day of my visit, it will not be discussed at length here. But I do want to draw attention to another work of Parker’s that seems to have been overlooked by the various commentators on the church – unaccountably so, since when I saw it I nearly drove my car off the road. In circa 1858 according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (the list description claims circa 1850), Parker designed a parish school and adjacent schoolmaster’s house. They stand some distance away from the church at the top of a slope running down to the Tanat and overlooking an early 18th century stone bridge.

St Michael’s Church, Llanyblodwel – the exterior of the south porch

The schoolhouse is an elongated, hall-like form built of the local red sandstone, with an extraordinary bellcote at the east end, taking the form of a skinny tower rising out of a break in the wall surface, corbelled out in its upper stage and terminating in a form like a Rhenish helm spire. It is offset in a curious fashion, cutting through the gable to one side of the apex. All around, gables break through the eaves, the corners are clasped by outsize buttresses and large chimneys form counterpoints to the bellcote. The schoolmaster’s house (subsequently a post office, now a private house like the school) is set at an angle to its neighbour and is an assemblage of tower-like forms, again with prominent clasping buttresses and again with dormers breaking through the eaves line. A cluster of funnel-like chimneys completes the effect, while a crenellated boundary wall is thrown around the whole site.

St Michael’s Church, Llanyblodwel – detail of the nave roof (© Michael Garlick and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence)

‘[Parker’s] work looks dotty, but he was clearly quite sane’, writes Peter Howell in The Faber Guide to Victorian Churches; ‘it must have been his artist’s eye that led to such picturesque results’. ‘Picturesque’ is the operative word, and this kind of quirky, almost cartoonish but ultimately winsome playfulness is still squarely in the Georgian tradition, persisting at a time when it was being superseded by the muscularity and seriousness of High Victorianism. There is only so much mileage in that approach and, for all his inventiveness, a quick review of his work is enough to demonstrate that Parker’s repertory of forms was limited. The same devices crop up again and again – restless rooflines, the grotesque attenuation of vertical accents, exaggerated cusping, overscaled ornament and so on. The first impression is arresting; examined at leisure, it begins to pall. What little he built is enough. But as a brief, vivid excursion into the strongly personal vision of an industrious gentleman amateur, it is entertaining and compelling stuff.

St Michael’s Church, Llanyblodwel – exterior from southwest

Published by Edmund Harris

Heritage professional and architectural historian residing in Canterbury. All views expressed here are my own and do not represent my employer.

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