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 acquired. 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.
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.
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).
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 was in a poor condition when he took up the living and he spent most of the time between then and his death comprehensively rebuilding it. The most pressing issue was the south wall of the nave, which threatened to collapse. Parker proposed to a vestry meeting not only rebuilding it but also incorporating an extra aisle to provide additional seating, stipulating that, in return for being given sole oversight of the work, he, Parker, would contribute £100 towards the cost, pay his quota as tithe-owner and indemnify those liable from any further charges. The motion did not pass, nor was – initially, at any rate – another proposal accepted to turn a schoolroom within the church building into additional accommodation in return for putting up a new school building outside the churchyard. But the wall was eventually rebuilt in 1846-1847, and the success of the venture seems to have induced the parishioners to give Parker a free hand from then on.
Vestry minutes record the subsequent instalments in this ambitious project only sporadically, but do mention that the work was carried out at Parker’s own expense. He reputedly disbursed a total of £10,000 on the church, school and vicarage. Whether Parker had at the outset a fully worked-out concept for the rebuilding is unknown, but at any rate he obligingly incorporated carved dates into the fabric that he added, which show that the scheme proceeded rapidly. A south porch was added in 1849 with an elaborate timber roof that incorporates prominent cusped wind braces and coloured bosses. This provides access not only to the nave, but also to stairs leading to the west gallery. These are present in a watercolour by Parker showing the church just after the rebuilding of the south wall, but seem to have been comprehensively remodelled by him. The dormers followed in 1850, suggesting that the ceiling of the nave and chancel may have been rebuilt around this time. Parker then turned his attention to the north aisle, adding a porch in 1851 and dormers in 1853.
There was then a short break before Parker embarked on the single most ambitious feature – the tower and spire, which replaced a modest timber bell cote. The work was carried out in 1855-1856 and Parker left a detailed chronicle of the work. The tower is free-standing and aligned with the arcade separating the nave and north aisle, 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’. The ground rises to the west of the church, there are numerous burials and Parker claimed that it was this lack of space that had prompted him to opt for an octagonal rather than square plan. The spire is conceived as a very attenuated dome rather than a cone, which Parker claimed was the principle that his close inspection of it had revealed to be the constructional basis of the spire of the minster at Freiburg-im-Breisgau in southwest Germany. His ‘Memorandums’ record his protracted attempts to create formwork for the construction. Striking a curve of the necessary radius of 230ft (70.1m) caused him considerable difficulty, but he persevered, concerned that ‘The spires of Shrewsbury and Coventry, and, more especially, St Andrew’s, Worcester, all seem to me dangerous slight and thin at their upper extremities; a fault which a small degree of convexity would have remedied… Our Gothic of the nineteenth century must not perpetuate this error’. The lowermost stage is battered and the fenestration is treated as staggered tiers of lancets and lucarnes, making it more like a continuous pattern. Parker was pleased with the finished result: ‘the convex outline of the spire has, I think, a certain degree of scientific and geometrical grandeur; and it also appears to me far more beautiful than the ordinary form’. It is a revealing insight into his aesthetics: his Gothic was informed by wide-ranging antiquarian study, yet he viewed historical prototypes as an anthology of forms and devices to be picked and combined at will – the overriding consideration being not archaeological accuracy, but visual effect. Nor did he treat the heritage of the Middle Ages with complete deference – modern science could and should be applied to improve it where possible.
The retention of the medieval fabric of much of the body of the church provided less opportunity for such bold experiments in form, but Parker’s distinctive aesthetic nonetheless dominates through the imposing and distinctive roof, the tour de force of the west gallery and the vibrant scheme of painted decoration (whitewashed around 1900 and not uncovered and restored until 1958-1960). The nave and chancel are not structurally differentiated, and so Parker marked the division by inserting a large openwork timber arch, supported on hammerbeams and running down to enormous carved and gilt pendants. These may have been inspired by the late 15th/early 16th century nave roof at St Davids Cathedral. Certainly the benches with poppyheads were Parker’s work and the configuration of the interior was, as left by him, apparently that of a Georgian auditory church, with the seating arranged in the manner of a collegiate chapel and focused on a double-decker pulpit on the south side of the nave rather than the altar. This was reordered in 1937-1945 to provide a more conventional arrangement, although Parker’s benches were retained.
No less a distinctive statement of Parker’s unique aesthetic is the parish school and adjacent schoolmaster’s house that he designed in c. 1858 according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 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 outside buttresses and large chimneys form counterpoints to the bellcote. The schoolmaster’s house (subsequently a post office, now like the school a private house) 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. The design exploits the picturesque location on a steep river valley to create a picturesque accent in the landscape.
‘[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.