On the sad early death in 1848 from tuberculosis of his beloved wife Isabella just days after she gave birth to Hubert Parry the composer, Thomas threw himself into erecting a monument to her that would shine as an example piece for the High Church Movement which was just beginning to flourish. Thomas had been an early member of The Cambridge Camden Society and he employed Henry Woodyer to create a large and elaborate country church. Through Thomas’s energy and enthusiasm, Highnam Church was completed by April 1851 in just 21 months and has remained virtually unaltered to this day. The chancel received decoration by the firm of J G Crace but this became insufficient for Gambier Parry. By 1856 he was “instructing” Crace’s men to increase the colour in the chancel mainly to Gambier Parry’s design but, in his own words, “ it is now 1858, all is but a beginning, a sort of ground work for the subjects I hope to cover the walls with.”


The following year Gambier Parry began painting the chancel arch scene to his own design and using his own invented paint medium known as Spirit Fresco, to survive the damp English climate. He was later to cover the north aisle with a Palm Sunday procession and was still intending to increase the figurative scenes at his death in 1888.


Through the first half of the twentieth century this unfashionably ‘high’ church slumbered unloved but still in use. The numerous candles deposited their soot on the walls and blocked rain goods seriously damaged the plaster and paint surface. By the 1980’s visitors began to hunt out this Victorian gem and in 1985 I, Gambier Parry’s great grandson, discovered he had family diaries, plans and even tubes of the paint and charcoal cartoons for the walls. He wrote a brief guide for visitors and, inspired by the building and its story, led a £200,000 appeal to clean and conserve the walls. We were guided by The Council for the Care of Churches. My restoration committee received a report from conservators acknowledging the sound condition of the majority of painted surfaces. Firstly the rain had to be kept out so a new roof, lead valleys and guttering was followed by re-setting the leaded windows and by 1989 the cleaning and conservation work began in the safe hands of Wolfgang Gärtner and Donald Smith. By 1993 every inch of wall had been cleaned, revealing the strong original colours. Small areas of reconstruction were made to give a complete effect and the result today is simply stunning. Two small areas were discreetly left uncleaned as historic evidence and to convince today’s visitor of the transformation achieved.


This gem of a time capsule is again safely cared for and is well worth a visit. It is another way that Thomas Gambier Parry’s achievements are remembered today.


Tom Fenton