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English Church Architecture.

 

EASTON (PORTLAND), St. George (SY 686 720),

DORSET.

(Bedrock:  Upper Jurassic, Portland Stone Formation.)

 

An impressive Georgian church and the only known work of Thomas Gilbert (d. 1776).

 

This  is certainly a most impressive church seen through a thick swirling sea mist in its huge treeless churchyard, but the condition does not lend itself to the taking of a good photograph.   This is also one of only three or four significant eighteenth century churches in Dorset, although the architect here was a local man, whose only known work this appears to be.  He was Thomas Gilbert of Portland (d. 1776), who designed here a building in the most uncompromising Palladian style.  The foundation stone was laid in 1754 and the church was consecrated in 1766, when it replaced the now-ruined St. Andrew’s.  Unfortunately, St. George’s proved draughty and inconvenient even after a major internal reorganization in 1849-52, and in 1917, it was replaced in its turn by Crickmay & Sons' church of All Saints.  Thereafter, St. George's fell into disrepair, from which it was only rescued in 1971 by the Redundant Churches Fund (now the Churches Conservation Trust) assisted by the 'Friend’s of St. George’s'.   It really needs to be viewed both inside and out, to see how its external form translates into internal organisation, so it is necessary to go in search of he key if it happens to be found locked.  The shallow domed crossing especially, which is not very noticeable outside and which in the hands of a better architect would probably not have been visible at all, comes into its own within, where it gives emphasis to the crossing, from whence the all-important sermon would formerly have been delivered in this 'Georgian preaching house'.

 

St. George’s, then, is a large pseudo-cruciform church, terminating in an apse at the east end and with the addition of small projecting rectangular chambers at the western corners of the nave.  It is of very domestic appearance outside, except in the three-stage tower with its little surmounting octagonal lantern.  Built entirely of 'Roach Stone' from the Winspit Member at the top of the Upper Jurassic System (from the so-called Portlandian Stage), the nave and transepts are lit by two tiers of characteristic eighteenth century windows – short and segmental-arched in the lower stage and tall and round-arched in the upper (gallery) stage, like the piano nobile of a contemporary country house.  The transepts are shallow but three bays in width, which is one more than the nave to the west!  They are topped to north and south by low-pitched pediments pierced by semicircular windows, and accessed below through central round-arched doorways, of which that on the N. side is enclosed by a porch.  The apse is lit by a single E. window but decorated to the northeast and southeast by blank circles above round-arched blank doorways, but if this looks a little more ecclesiastical than the nave and the transepts, it is nevertheless only really in the tower that the building truly announces itself to be a church. (See the photograph left, taken from the northwest.)  Decorated like the apse around its lowest stage, it rises to an enclosed, recessed second stage and a further recessed but open belfry, surmounted by a concave-sided octagonal lantern roofed with a conical dome terminating in a finial.  The belfry is formed on each side by a projecting entablature supported by Tuscan columns, surrounding single round-arched bell-openings with projecting abaci and keystones.

 

Inside the church, it is the early Victorian fittings that command attention, together with the painted plastered ceilings, picked out in gold and pale grey-blue.  Galleries run along the north, west and south sides of the nave, and the nave and crossing are filled with box pews, all suitably positioned to face the twin pulpits between.  (One is actually a reading desk.)  With oppositely carved banister rails, they emphasize the symmetry of this  eighteenth century design, and for art-historical purposes if not from any other, the church was fortunate to be so sympathetically treated at the time of its Victorian restoration, when such buildings were abhorred.