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The Church Interiors of John Loughborough Pearson

Assessing the work of an important Victorian church architect

A statue of John Loughborough Pearson in Truro Cathedral.
The statue of John Loughborough Pearson above the south entrance of Truro Cathedral. © Historic England, James O Davies, DP172580

Victorian boom for church architecture

The  Victorian era witnessed the greatest increase of church building, restoration and furnishing since the Reformation, ushering to prominence some of the most influential architects and craftsmen of the day. One of these leading figures was John Loughborough Pearson (1817–97).

As part of a national project to assess the work of important Victorian church architects such as Pearson, Historic England have undertaken an investigation of the surviving church interiors designed by the architect.

The research was intended to shed light on the significance of the fittings and decorative schemes of these buildings as well as their architecture. The aim is to ensure their value can be recognised and taken into account when changes are proposed.

Interior view of the church of St Anne in Ellerker, East Yorkshire.
The church of St Anne in Ellerker (East Yorkshire), Pearson’s first commission as an independent architect, built 1843‒4. The design was largely shaped by the ideas of Pugin and the Ecclesiologists. © Historic England, Alun Bull, DP168572

Pearson's soaring style

Pearson initially took inspiration and direction from Augustus Welby Pugin and the Ecclesiologists and later from John Ruskin.

By the mid-1860s, however, he had developed a style of his own and was becoming well-known for his mastery of magnificent vaulted and well-proportioned buildings, with ‘soaring height and ever-changing vistas’ (Beacham and Pevsner 2014, 664). This aesthetic was exemplified by his greatest achievement, Truro Cathedral (1880–7 and 1898–1903), the first purpose-built cathedral to be constructed in England since 1697.

Since Pearson chose not to publish or present widely on his work, he is now perhaps less well-known than such Gothic Revival architects as Pugin or Scott.

Nevertheless his achievements, particularly from the mid-1860s onwards, confirm him as one of the later movement’s major contributors. He produced design schemes for over 200 places of worship across England as well as others in Scotland, Wales and on the Isle of Man; he even designed Brisbane Cathedral, Australia. His career spanned 54 years and encompassed much of the history of the Victorian Gothic Revival, from its developmental stages to the beginning of its decline towards the end of the 19th century.

View towards the north transept of Truro Cathedral.
View towards the north transept of Truro Cathedral. © Historic England, James O Davies, DP172592

New light on Pearson's little-researched work

Since Anthony Quiney’s book John Loughborough Pearson (Quiney 1979), which remains a key text for the architect’s career and work, relatively little research has been published on Pearson, and very little indeed on the survival of his interior schemes. This makes it difficult to reach informed decisions regarding proposals which might involve the loss of historic church fabric.

The project therefore, had four main aims:

  • to determine the extent of the architect’s role in the creation or restoration of church interiors including his relationships with clients, builders and craftsmen;
  • to understand the significance of Pearson’s church interiors in terms of design and quality;
  • to assess the general condition and rarity of Pearson’s surviving interior work; and
  • to highlight some of the common ways in which Victorian church interiors have changed and are changing in the 21st century.

In order to obtain an overview of the general condition and survival rate of Pearson’s church interiors, including how they are currently used, a comprehensive list of known completed works by the architect was compiled. This was assembled, using secondary and online sources, by Chloe Stanton, a volunteer working for Historic England.

From this list a sample of 15 churches ‒ spanning Pearson’s career and distributed throughout the country ‒ were chosen for detailed investigation and photography by the Historic England Assessment Team.

The assessment of each church involved on-site analysis of the interior to determine the extent to which the scheme as executed differed from the intended design, and whether it had been diluted by subsequent alterations. A measured survey was also carried out of those churches which were most under threat, whether by being closed or because demolition was threatened.

The vaulted chancel at the church of St George in Cullercoats, Tyne and Wear.
The vaulted chancel at the church of St George in Cullercoats, Tyne and Wear (1884) incorporates dogtooth decoration with ring-moulded capitals and nailhead detailing, motifs typical of the Early English style. © Alun Bull, Historic England DP168583

Balance and harmony whatever the scale

Our  investigations have shown that Pearson was usually involved in every stage of a project, closely monitoring the work to ensure that his designs and intentions were executed in full.

He also remained loyal to those builders and craftsmen (stained-glass manufacturers, etc) who had earned his trust through the quality and consistency of their work ‒ the same names re-appear time and time again in connection with his churches throughout the country. The same is true of Pearson himself with regard to those who chose to employ him; he often secured multiple commissions from the same client or found new work through recommendation.

Pearson was most comfortable with the 13th-century Early English style. He demonstrated early on that he was able to accurately recreate medieval proportions, motifs and details, a skill which was most likely underpinned by his experience of living and working within the shadow of Durham Cathedral from an early age until 1842, and from his devotion to studying the northern English cathedrals and monasteries.

It is in the creation of well-balanced and proportioned layouts, however, that Pearson excelled. His designs specified all details of the interior, sometimes even down to the altar cloths and Communion vessels, and his fixtures and fittings were always placed harmoniously within the interior space.

As might be expected, the size and complexity of Pearson’s designs were proportionate to the available budget, although he rarely, if ever, seems to have refused a commission, regardless of its size or location.

He developed a style for smaller, cheaper churches in order to meet the demands of the lesser and poorer parishes which approached him. St Hugh’s Church in Sturton (Lincolnshire) and St Mary’s in Hambleton (North Yorkshire) are good examples of buildings in which modest design and materials still display Pearson’s characteristic emphasis on height, balanced proportions and spatial complexity.

The chancel of the church of St Hugh of Avalon, Sturton by Stow, Lincolnshire.
The chancel of the church of St Hugh of Avalon, Sturton by Stow (Lincolnshire), built in 1879. © Historic England, Pat Payne, DP172356
Interior photograph showing the chancel of St Mary‘s Church at Hambleton,(North Yorkshire
The chancel of St Mary‘s Church at Hambleton (North Yorkshire) built in 1881 ‒2. © Alun Bull, Historic England DP168536

It is notable that the detailing and furnishings of these smaller buildings sometimes replicates that seen in his finest and most expensive churches. It is thus clear that the potential level of this architect’s involvement and contribution should always be carefully considered, regardless of a building’s relative scale, architectural complexity and aesthetic qualities.

A pulpit within the former church of St Luke at Winnington, Cheshire.
The pulpit within the former church of St Luke at Winnington (Cheshire), built in 1896‒7. The detailing on the pulpit, particularly the frieze, are similar to those of other larger and more expensive Pearson churches, such as the Catholic Apostolic Church in Paddington (1894). © Historic England, James O Davies, DP168648

A vulnerable legacy

Almost  all of Pearson’s surviving churches, with the exception of three of his smaller works, are listed and therefore subject to faculty or statutory protection. The recent demolition of the unlisted church of St Luke at Winnington (Cheshire) in 2015, however, is a reminder that even churches designed by a major architect can be under threat.

Furthermore, it is clear that a key element of the interior design of these buildings ‒ their moveable furniture ‒ is not adequately protected by statutory designation and is therefore, more vulnerable to damage or loss than the church itself. This is particularly true if its provenance is not properly known or its significance not understood. This project has shown that such pieces can be an integral part of a church interior designed by a major architect, and thus that this association should be assessed most carefully before reaching any decisions about change.

The results of our research will be published as a Historic England Research Report, available through the Historic England website, later in 2016; it is hoped that they will help others identify, understand and assess the significance of the church interiors designed by John Loughborough Pearson and his contemporaries, and thereby help with their preservation.

It is also hoped that the conclusions of this project will contribute to the wider assessment of the value inherent in the work of Victorian church architects, especially where their fittings and decorative schemes survive.

Clare Howard


Clare Howard MA, CIfA, IHBC, joined English Heritage (now Historic England) as an Architectural Investigator in March 2014 following a number of years working in commercial archaeology and heritage consultancy. In her current role, Clare specialises in the research and investigation of heritage assets of various periods; her particular interests are in medieval and church architecture.

Further Reading

Beacham, P and Pevsner, N 2014 Buildings of England: Cornwall. New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Cooper, T and Brown, S 2011 Pews, Benches and Chairs. London: The Ecclesiological Society

Dixon, R and Muthesius, S 1985 Victorian Architecture (2 edn). London: Thames & Hudson

Eastlake, C L 1972 A History of the Gothic Revival. London: Longmans, Green; New York: Scribner, Welford

Lloyd, D 1976 ‘John Loughborough Pearson: noble seriousness’, in Fawcett J (ed) Seven Victorian Architects. London: Thames and Hudson

Newberry, J E 1897 ‘The work of John L Pearson R A, part 1: ecclesiastical’. Architectural Review 1, 1–11

Quiney, A 1979 John Loughborough Pearson. New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Quiney, A 1998 ‘The door marked “Pull”: J L Pearson and his first clients in the East Riding of Yorkshire’. Architectural History 41, 208–19

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