Croome Court is a National Trust property not far from Worcester, and one I particularly enjoy visiting because of the variety of things to see there, including the Neo-Palladian house, designed by Capability Brown and visited by several monarchs (and once occupied by Hare Krishnas, surprisingly). The grounds are beautiful and extensive (also designed by Brown) and including follies and a grotto (I do like a nice grotto, though this one lacks a hermit, sadly). The site was used as a secret airbase (RAF Defford) during the Second World War, and the buildings that remain from this period in its history are now the visitors’ centre and canteen.
What particularly caught my attention last time I visited, though, was the Church of St Mary Magdalene, no longer in use, but in a good state of repair (due to the Churches Conservation Trust, who have restored it ‘in the spirit of’ Adam’s original design) and remarkable in many ways. An earlier building on the site was knocked down to make way for this building, designed by Capability Brown and with an interior by Robert Adam. What appeals to me is that it is a fantastic example of Gothic Revival architecture. Completed in 1763, this church represents the first wave of Gothic architecture in England, around the same time that Walpole was doing up his ‘little cottage’ at Strawberry Hill as a Gothic castle, inspired by the soaring ecclesiastical buildings of early Europe. The decor, the shapes of the windows and the church furniture, the elaborate monuments and the muted colour scheme all reek of a Gothic aesthetic. Nikolaus Pevsner, a font of all architectural knowledge fondly referred to by my father as ‘Uncle Nick’, in Buildings of Worcestershire, says:
‘The church, as originally planned by Brown, 1758, was to be classical, with tetrastyle portico. As built it is medievalizing: one of the most serious of the early Gothic Revival outside, one of the most beautiful within. With its W[est] tower and large E[ast] window, it must have looked perfectly convincing from the house as well as the road.’
He goes on to say that ‘Adam’s interior is pure Georgian Gothic’, though one does wonder how much he approves given that he talks about the ‘monuments choking it within’ as well as the unusually long chancel. There are, indeed, many monuments; in fact, they are the reason the chancel is long, because the family monuments from the previous, demolished church are there alongside other, more recent ones, and the effect is of a mausoleum in the best possible (if slightly cramped) taste. The monuments tend towards the sculptural, reminding visitors of the money and pomp which underpinned the building of this elegant church. It is impressive, and of its time in a historically and culturally fascinating way, but one suspects it had less to do with glorifying God than with elevating the Earls of Coventry, the residents of Croome Court, for whom, as Pevsner suggests, it was mainly an ‘eye-catcher’ for their landscape.