The discovery of the wallpaintings

Until the late 1930s, no one had any idea of the treasures hidden beneath layers of whitewash in St John’s Church. They were discovered by accident by the churchwarden of the day, Ernest Walsingham. Here’s his account of the discovery and subsequent restoration work by Clive Rouse, the foremost expert on wallpaintings at that time.

In 1939, the Church Council decided to have the inside walls of St John’s Church whitewashed again and I was given the job. When cleaning down the walls, removing loose flakes etc. I discovered that there was a colour underneath. I informed Canon Goodrich, who, presumably, realised that these could be significant wall paintings. He discussed it with Sir Walter Benton Jones, who agreed to donate a substantial sum of money, towards the cost of exposing what was there.

The work was undertaken by Mr E. Clive Rouse, who lodged at the Vicarage [now the Old Rectory], whilst carrying out the work. This was in 1940, when there was an invasion scare and the Local Defence Volunteers (Look, Duck and Vanish) was formed, later to become the Home Guard (Dad’s Army). I had to join and so did Mr Rouse. We were given the task of defending the Glen Bridge and I am not sure how we would have performed if the German army had appeared.

At the beginning we hadn’t any rifles, but eventually they were supplied. Mr Rouse was playing around with his rifle when we were at the bridge, and he accidentally pulled the trigger. I could hear the bullet whizzing over the village and he was very surprised. 

Mr Rouse exposed the church murals and treated them with wax and turpentine, which is not now considered suitable. English Heritage paid for them to be treated again recently [in the 1990s] and I understand that the cost was £60,000. 

It is a pity that the murals are not more distinct. The kind of problem Mr Rouse encountered was that murals had over the years been painted one on top of another. He therefore had to determine which was the clearer painting and try to preserve that.

‘Recollections of Village Life’ by Ernest Walsingham, pages 91–92, in Corby Glen: A Changing Rural Scene (Corby Glen Local History Society, 2000)

Clive Rouse’s book, The Church of St John the Evangelist, Corby, Lincolnshire (1941), was produced as a gift to the church. It includes a commentary on elements of the church (not just the wallpaintings) and colour drawings made to scale while the paintings were under treatment. The drawings are especially helpful in cases where paintings from two periods are layered over each other, for example those in the north aisle, where the two periods were drawn separately for the sake of clarity.

The text in this section draws heavily on Rouse’s book, though modern scholars have expressed concern over Rouse’s tendency to “touch up” the material he was working on, not withstanding his claim that:

no attempt at “restoration” has been made: the paintings are merely cleaned, treated to bring up the colour, and fixed. 

Of church paintings in general

The walls of Corby Glen Church provide impressive proof of the fact that every medieval church was formerly completely painted, the subject-matter being mainly directed towards teaching the illiterate congregation by means of pictures easily understood. 

As these paintings became dilapidated, or structural alterations were made to the building, so they were repainted or replaced at several times during the medieval period. 

Eventually, all these subjects were deliberately defaced at the Reformation as being Popish, and were in most cases covered with whitewash on which texts in frames were painted. Several examples of these latter remain. 

They in turn became dilapidated or unfashionable and were covered by successive coats of limewash until not the slightest trace of painting of any period was visible.

The Corby Glen paintings

At Corby the paintings are of two periods, with post-Reformation texts of two dates. Two of the subjects are of great rarity – the Virgin protecting souls under her cloak; and the Warning to Swearers – and a third, the great Nativity series in the nave, is treated in a most unusual and interesting way. The whole set is a fine example of medieval art and teaching. 

The condition of many is fragmentary, not solely due to their defacing in the 16th century, but largely due to failure of the plaster base. This can be traced partly to neglect of the structure in the past – dampness of walls caused by earth piled up at the base, failure to clear pipes and gutters, and to attend to roofs and pointing – and partly to the use of a poor natural mortar in the walls and plaster itself. Very heavy plaster repairs were everywhere necessary; and these patches have been toned down so as not to distract the eye.

The Church of St John the Evangelist, Corby, Lincolnshire, by E Clive Rouse (1941)

The wallpaintings in the north aisle

The Doom painting

The Nativity story


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