The history of St. Georges Church
The parish of Barbourne was taken out of the medieval parish of Climes which extended into the centre of Worcester from the north along its east side. The first church of the 1830s proved too small and detailed planning for its replacement began in 1889 when Aston Webb. who had personal and professional connections with the City was chosen as the architect? Although by now carrying out much of his business with Edward ingress Bell (e.g., the Birmingham Law Courts and later Birmingham University), he undertook this commission on ho own. Building works began in 1893 and ended in 1895. The designs and other details were publicised and published through the architectural press and were also exhibited at the Royal Academy.
“key work of his early and best period”
N. Pevsner, Buildings of England: Worcestershire, 1965, P 318
Red stonehouse bricks, Bath stone and Westmoreland slates are the principal materials mentioned in the architectural press and indeed the visual impact of the building, within and without is made through a clear and well-articulated as well as elaborate use of these materials. In general, the building through its materials recalls more exuberant work by William Butterfieid (e.g., Holy Saviour, Hitchin of the 1860s). The materials are perhaps more reminiscent of Italian or German Gothic although the detailing draws on a native vocabulary. Webb excels in detail and in designing even the smallest part and St. George’s is a building which rewards close scrutiny. Webb’s other principal skill was as a planner of buildings and of groups of buildings and at the time he built St George’s he was working or such major schemes as the South Kensington Museum. By chance, the site for the new Church was at the end of a long rectangular square opening off the main road north out of the City. The high and deep, recessed arch, which gives the west facade its presence, became the focal point for the whole square. This is the only open or public elevation and there is a marked contrast between the plain, rather severe side elevations and the elaboration of only significant facade, another accidental Continental feature.
Aston Webb is not well-known as a designer of churches and St. George’s has an extra importance therefore in the context of his own work. In fact, he carried out quite a lot of ecclesiastical work, much of it as creative restoration, e.g., St. Bartholomew-the Great (c. 1852) where he developed an essentially new transept and west end to complete a badly mauled medieval church, on that occasion creating effects with flint and stone not dissimilar to those achieved with brick and stone at Worcester. His additional aisle at Claines nearby. was executed w sandstone and limestone, subtly blended to the existing medieval structure. Burford, Tenbury (c.1887) was another successful blend of old and new work (tower) carried out in stone. Complete new build churches are modest except for those carried over in the context of his large schemes such as the chapels for Christ’s Hospital School (c.1894) and the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth (c.1897).
St. Bartholomew-the-Great, and the French Protestant Church, Soho, were contemporary projects to St. George’s. The French Protestant Church had to fit into a gap in a street frontage and he decided to follow the tradition of Non-Conformist churches in towns to be relatively low profile, by adopting a relatively flat elevation, akin to the Flemish 15th or 16th century Hotel. He executed his design, however, in the assertive, red terracotta that he had pioneered in the Birmingham Assize Courts.
The importance of St. George’s to the streetscape of Worcester is considerable. It also represents the finest piece of Edwardian church architecture in a City which contains a good example from the Middle Ages, the 18th and the 19th centuries. In fact, only the 17th century is unrepresented by a significant church building, but that is true of many or most towns. St. George’s is in scale with some of the best of the 18th and 19th century and is to be admired for the dignity of the building although it is modest in its use of materials and decoration.
The first design for the west front had two small doors set in a low projecting screen across the front beneath a twin-towered facade supported by quite massive corner buttresses with a single bell turret with tiny fleche in the centre. The buttresses were to be stepped, the effect anticipating First World War Memorial Arches etc. Aston Webb had used the two-entrance door screen in an earlier church in London – St. Alban’s, Margravine Street, Fulham. Here the red brick was given very little articulation with stone and the effect is rather mean.
The 1894 design for the west front was modified in favour of a design close to that executed but with the central porch extended on either side with two screen walls? giving access to the aisles. Fortunately, Webb abandoned these and thereby created a far more effective and original central portal. In this he set a four-centred door under a broken arch with the intervening space elaborated with lobes of blind tracery. The portal is topped by a variation on an ogee arch, a miniature version of an idea that he had employed for the main entrance into the Birmingham Assize Courts (there using glazed, red terracotta). In Worcester, St. George replaced Queen Victoria. These portal ideas reached their apogee in the great, Cromwell Road entrance to the South Kensington or Victoria and Albert Museum where Edward VII presides. The west window, recessed behind the Worcester entrance porch, is a comparatively restrained essay M the Perpendicular style.
The rest of the exterior is plain with aisle walls almost entirely in red brick with small, lancet windows, and the general effect created being that of a North German Gothic church. But even on the side elevations it is worth looking for the detail, e.g., the serifs, if that is how to describe what is little more than an illusion to broken off tracery, on the verticals of the main transept window.
The interior of St. George’s is dominated by generous proportions below a timber roof and a great sense of unified space between nave, transept and chancel. The stone pedestals marking the entrance to the chancel are part of the detailing that seeks to retain this openness (and reminds one of Webb as one of the major planners of ceremonial London – the Mall!). Some of the interior decoration has been lost, viz. a band or frieze of figurative decoration between the organ pipes and the reredos something of the flavour of which can be gained from the latter-day William Morris painted decoration of the organ case and pipes on the north side of the chancel.
The primary quality of the interior, as of the church in general, is given by a carefully judged balance of brick and stone and of the forms given to the stonework. The eye should follow the string courses and the arch mouldings from their beginning to their end and will encounter subtleties on the way, for example the nave pier bases in section, the contrast between their aisle face made out of brick and banded stonework and their nave face in stone alone. The applied shafts rise to corbels supporting the roof timbers and there have a complicated meeting with the horizontal string courses. The chancel arcade is given a richer treatment to that of the nave, with angled, traceried panels decorating the arch.
St. George’s is one of Aston Webb’s most distinguished designs in which, with great economy or means, he created a church of dignity and refinement. Some of his other work of this period in the context of much larger and usually metropolitan commissions, is arguably less distinguished because it was less restrained.
DRAWINGS (to be added soon!)
Perspective from the South West drawn by T.Raffles Davison published in The Builder, 2(). 7. 1895, double page illus. [ This design is that executed]
Interior Perspective [View of the Chancel from the West] drawn by A.N.Prentice Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin [ as executed shooing a figurative painted frieze across the Chancel walls starting east of the Organ Chamber and continuing up to and beyond the Reredos.]
New Church… interior of Chancel by A.W. Royal Academy, 1894, no. 1554 [ probably the above]
The Builder, 8. 9. 1894, p. 173, double page illus.