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English Church Architecture -



GREAT FINBOROUGH, St. Andrew (TM 013 579)     (June 2008)

(Bedrock:  Neogene to Quaternary, Crag Group)


This is an attractive building, completed in 1877 to the designs of Richard Makilwaine Phipson (1827-85), a skilled architect worthy of greater recognition, albeit the majority of his work of church restoration was confined to Norfolk and Suffolk and often of the kind that provided limited scope for his talent.  When it did, as at St. Mary-le-Tower, Ipswich, and here (and, to a lesser extent, in the spire of St. Mary’s, Woolpit) he seems invariably to have risen to the challenge.


Phipson’s commission at Great Finborough involved the construction of a new and expensive church (shown left, from the east) on the site of its little predecessor, and the only mediaeval work he re-used was the two, two-light Decorated windows with curvilinear tracery, now opposite each other at the western end of the nave (west of the S. porch) and the basic fabric of the porch, although this was partially refaced to match the masonry elsewhere. The new building consisted of a tall tower with spire, a nave and a chancel, with additions to the north comprising a N. transept serving chiefly as a chapel to members of the Wollaston and Pettiward families, a lean-to organ chamber against the transept’s E. wall, and a cross-gabled vestry, further east again.  The greatest design effort and the majority of the money, seems to have been spent on the exterior, for the interior is relatively plain and uninteresting and Phipson seems to have been concerned to demonstrate his skill in two principal ways - first, in the form of the highly successful tower and spire, and second, in his admirable handling of the construction materials (as apparent from the photograph immediately below), which are predominantly grey flints and brown cobbles that seldom look better than here, offset as they are by prominent limestone dressings and string courses at heights of about 15 and 30 inches (40 and 80 cms.).  The nave and porch walls are topped, beneath the eaves, by attractive narrow friezes in structural polychromy, featuring trefoils and quatrefoils, and these are transmuted above the N. and S. walls of the chancel into an equally successful corbel table formed of little trefoil-cusped arches. Their intricacy has the effect of drawing the eye away from the windows, which adopt a variety of simply-drawn Second Pointed Gothic forms, albeit forms that in no instance look convincingly mediaeval and were probably not intended to do so. However, these rather ordinary windows actually contribute to the success of the building, for elaborate window traceries would have attracted attention away from Phipson’s treatment of the masonry, over which he has taken a care worthy of Butterfield.




Nevertheless, Phipson’s greatest achievement at Great Finborough is actually to be seen in the tower, and it comes as a surprise to learn that the spire was something of an afterthought for it now seems absolutely integral to the church’s success.  The tower rises first in three diagonally-buttressed square stages with a stair turret projecting at the eastern end of the N. wall and with supporting diagonal buttresses that subsequently reach across as squat flying buttresses to the diagonal faces of the octagonal bell-stage - which, by its reduced size, adds greatly to the apparent lightness of the structure - with bell-openings with a variant of reticulated tracery piercing the cardinal sides.  The tall spire sits flush upon this (i.e. without recess) and rises to a needle point, lit by two tiers of lucernes and faced alternately by red-brown and buff stone in bands of harmonious but irregular widths.  The whole composition forms a prominent landmark visible for a mile or more all round (see the photograph below, taken from the west), yet its slender silhouette ensures that it fits comfortably into the landscape, notwithstanding its distinctly alien form (in this part of East Anglia at least).



Inside the building there is rather less to see but the assortment of monuments in the transept, mostly from the old church, may detain the visitor awhile.  The most curious feature is the way in which the collar-beamed nave roof, constructed in six narrow bays, is so conspicuously at odds with the five wider bays of the nave itself, a discord for which there is no obvious explanation.   The chancel roof is scissor-braced above collars and the chancel has a plain N. arch opening to the organ chamber and a double sedilia with piscina beyond (shown left), recessed in the east end of the S. wall, formed of trefoil-cusped arches supported on brown marble columns and with head label stops at the sides.  The chancel arch carries a series of mouldings above semi-octagonal responds, and the tall tower arch has a complex profile organized into what are, in effect, three distinct orders.  The font comprises an octagonal bowl of buff-coloured sandstone, supported on eight circular columns of streaked red marble.  It is quite a nice piece but no match for some of Butterfield’s fonts composed of contrasting stones.  (See, for example, the latter’s font at Baldersby St. James, North Yorkshire.)  


The most prominent monument in the church is that commemorating Roger Pettiward (d. 1833), boasting a large panel depicting the story of the Good Samaritan (as illustrated right), featuring, beside the two figures, an ass and a palm tree. It is the work of Sir Richard Westmacott  (1775 - 1856), one of three late eighteenth and early nineteenth century monumental sculptors of that name, being the son of Richard Westmacott the Elder (1747 - 1808) and father of Richard Westmacott the Younger (1799 - 1872), and being of these, both the most prolific and most famous artist, though not necessarily the best.  His figures here, for example, while more than competently done, are heavy in comparison with his father’s monument to James Lennox Dutton (d. 1776) in St. Mary Magdalene’s church, Sherborne (Gloucestershire), where the subject of an angel trampling death provided the elder Westmacott with an excuse for a sensitive and sensuous celebration of the female form.