Keene Book Review: Late-Georgian Churches

Late-Georgian Churches

Anglican architecture, patronage and churchgoing in England, 1790-1840

Christopher Webster

John Hudson Publishing, 2022 (ISBN: 978-7398229-0-3, 320pp, £80)

During the past hundred years, and especially the past fifty, valiant progress has been made in correcting patronising Victorian views of the eighteenth-century church. Since the work of Dean Sykes, several authors have successfully worked to revise our understanding of its theology, practices, finances, politics, and leadership. As regards church buildings, emigre architectural historian Marcus Whiffen began the revival in his 1947 review of the regions, Stuart and Georgian Churches. Basil Clarke, a long-serving Berkshire vicar, picked up the baton in his 1963 Building of the Eighteenth Century Church, noting with satisfaction that ‘the eighteenth-century churches are [now] treated with respect]’ and pursuing this new enthusiasm into the realm of the logistical background to construction. A more recent landmark was the epic-scale Eighteen Century Church in Britain (2011), a labour of love by Terry Friedman, the ‘scholar-curator’ whose change of domicile took the opposite trajectory to Whiffen’s. 

With renewed appreciation of church building of the long eighteenth century has come fresh focus on its relation to the Victorian era. Contrary to the view that Cambridge’s Ecclesiological movement grew from Oxford’s Tractarian, it is now better understood that both stepped into a philosophical space prepared for them by the late Georgians. Nineteenth-century interest in gothic plans and details clearly pre-dated Pusey, hence why the turn had less of a party flavour than may be imagined. The new book by Webster provides a rich illustration of this phenomenon. Although briefer than Friedman’s opus, it exhibits the same meticulous attention, high quality, and passionate dedication. 

Beginning in 1790, Webster leads us through half a century of church-building, decade by decade, exposing trends and developments as they arose. Interspersed are chapters with topical foci such as the nature of auditory worship and the challenge of seating the congregation (a challenge which we pray might return to all churches!). The book brings to the public the fruits of doctoral study at York University and – no doubt – years of private investigation. The standard of both research and photography is such that this book is a worthy addition to both library and coffee table. In both locations, and beyond, it will serve to correct warped views, which linger on in the public mind, of what a church ‘should’ look like.

Edward Keene, Little Shelford