Newark Town Hall, Newark, Nottinghamshire (Newark Town Council).

Carr’s sound, satisfying, and solid creations

A new book on an inventive, unjustly underrated, provincial architect is handsome but flawed


John Carr of York: Collected Essays
by Ivan Hall, edited by Kenneth Powell
(Winchester: Carriana Publishing 2023)
ISBN: 978-1-3999-5915-5 (hardback)
           978-1-3999-5916-2 (e-book)
508 pp., 148 col. & b&w illus.

John Carr (1723-1807) was a competent and prolific practitioner of architecture in the North of England, having early absorbed the Palladianism made fashionable largely through the influence of Richard Boyle (1694-1753), 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork from 1704, and from the published works of Robert Morris (1703-54), a copy of whose Select Architecture Carr is known to have owned. Early in his career he was involved in the erection of Kirby Hall, Ouseburn, West Riding of Yorkshire (1747-55), designed by Burlington and Morris, but demolished in 1920 apart from the stables.

The Grand Lodge entrance to the grounds at Harewood, designed by Carr in the form of a simplified Triumphal Arch, erected at the beginning of the 19th century when the main road was re-aligned to avoid close proximity to the House (Harewood House).

I first became interested in Carr in the 1960s when I visited Harewood, in what used to be the West Riding of Yorkshire. Harewood House was built (1759-71) to designs by Carr (with interiors decorated by Robert [1728-92] and James [1732-94] Adam), though what we see today is largely the result of drastic alterations (1842-50) under Charles Barry (1795-1860), not all of which can be regarded as improvements on the earlier work. This ambitious country house was to become the residence of Edwin Lascelles (1712/13-95), created Baron of Harewood, 1790, who had inherited a fortune from his father, Henry (1690-1753). What struck me was the quality of the architecture of the estate village, begun to designs evidently by Carr, commenced c.1755 and built of stone over a long period, not completed until the end of the century: I found Carr’s work refreshingly free from pedantry, assured, and highly inventive, with its pediments, blind arcades, and much else to delight the eye. A re-alingment of the main road, diverting it away from the House (a development not unconnected with fear of social unrest prompted by unpleasant events in France), led to the erection of the mighty Grand Lodge at the entrance to  the Park, terminating the vista along The Avenue, and, by adopting the form of the Roman Triumphal Arch, signals the presence of an important aristocratic seat to travellers (the Lascelles heir to Edwin was created an Earl in 1812). This late design (c.1802-5) by Carr employs an engaged Roman Doric Order, with a coffered vault over the carriageway. It is a noble, restrained, powerful piece of work.

Cover illustration of the book under review: it depicts Tabley House, Knutsford, Cheshire (1760-7), formerly called Oakland House, designed for Sir Peter Byrne Leicester, 4th Baronet (1732-70), a building which first seems to have sparked Dr Hall’s interest in Carr (Ivan Hall).

For more than half a century, though largely self-taught, Carr was one of the most successful of all Georgian architects, enjoying a practice largely supported by the Yorkshire gentry, but because his work was mostly in the North, his “provincial” status has led to a serious undervaluation of his splendid output. A similar fate has been that of the younger, Yorkshire-born, Thomas Harrison (1744-1829), whose realised architecture was limited geographically to the north-western counties of England, therefore attaching the “provincial” label to him as well, despite his obvious genius often displayed in great buildings such as Lancaster Castle (1788-99) and the County Courts, Shire Hall, Gaol, Armoury, Barracks, Exchequer, and Gateway at Chester Castle (1788-1822). Ivan Hall was long a doughty champion of Carr, and in this handsome volume of scholarly and perceptive essays he gives us impressions of a likeable, sensitive, highly intelligent, and much loved human being, though one has to work hard to abstract material from the pages, and that is due to the not entirely satisfactory organisation of the book.  

Some of Carr’s most extraordinary creations were at Wentworth Woodhouse, former West Riding of Yorkshire, for Charles Watson-Wentworth (1730-82), 2nd Marquess of Rockingham from 1759, and his successor, William, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam (1748-1833). He raised the wings of the huge Palladian house that had originally been designed (1734-6) by Ralph Tunnicliffe (c.1688-1736) followed by Henry Flitcroft (aka “Burlington Harry” [1697-1769]), and added temple-fronts to them, but his most outstanding creation there was the Rockingham Mausoleum (1785-91), which is not a mausoleum at all, but a cenotaph to the memory of the 2nd Marquess (who was actually entombed in York Minster).

The amazing east front of Wentworth Woodhouse, one of the grandest Palladian compositions, derived from the great house at Wanstead, Essex (c.1714-20 – demolished 1820), by Colen Campbell (1676-1729). The wings on either side were raised and acquired engaged Doric porticoes designed by John Carr (Ivan Hall).

 The “Mausoleum” is loosely based on the Roman Tomb of the Julii (c.30-20 BC) at Saint-Rémy, Provence, and is guarded on all four diagonals by obelisks. Inside is exquisite Neo-Classical plasterwork by Thomas Henderson (fl. 1780s-90s) and Ely Crabtree (1748-1824), a fine setting for the statue (1790) of Rockingham by Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823) and busts of Rockingham’s political allies by Nollekens, John Bacon Senior (1740-99), Giuseppe Ceracchi (1751-1801), and John Hickey (1751-95). The obelisks, though, were actually made earlier, in 1728, to adorn what had been the mansion’s formal West Garden, and were re-erected at the “Mausoleum” under the direction of Humphry Repton (1752-1818) in 1793 as part of his huge scheme to landscape the Park during the 1790s, but his work was obliterated  by open-cast coal-mining carried out from the 1940s (a policy not altogether removed from social engineering and class-envy) which almost spelled the end of one of the greatest Palladian compositions in England.

The Rockingham “Mausoleum” at Wentworth Woodhouse, by Carr, the obelisks added by Repton (Wentworth Estate).

Carr seems to have been on excellent terms with the Northern nobility and gentry, often being invited to stay at the grandest houses. He carried out numerous additions and alterations as well as  new works: among the latter were Everingham Hall, East Riding (1758-64), Constable Burton, North Riding (c.1762-8), the splendid Stables at Castle Howard, former North Riding (1774-82), and the very impressive Crescent and Stables at Buxton, Derbyshire (1780-90), the last for William Cavendish (1748-1811—5th Duke of Devonshire from 1764). 

Front and rear of Buxton Crescent, Buxton, Derbyshire, by Carr (© Ensana Buxton Crescent Hotel and Nick Hatton/Alamy Stock Photo).

The huge square in the centre of Newark, Nottinghamshire, boasts Carr’s fine Palladian Town Hall and Assembly Rooms (1773-6 — with lovely interior decorations in the Assembly Room itself, each end of which is apsidal), but his Assize Courts in the Castle, York (1772-7), leant well into an impeccable Classicism with which neither Sir William Chambers (1723-96) nor James Gandon (1742-1823) would have been uncomfortable, for it is an extremely accomplished and very polished performance

York Assize Courts, York (Ivan Hall).

Georgian Gothick of the pre-archæologically correct kind could be frivolous and amusing, embarrassingly crass, delicately charming, or wonderfully original without being in any way stylistically correct: Carr himself could rise impressively to the occasion, notably with his powerful remodelling of the Norman gateway at Durham Castle (1791) for Shute Barrington (1734-1826), Prince-Bishop of Durham from 1791, though there are one or two eyebrow-raising details to add levity to an otherwise serious piece of work.

Durham Castle Gateway (Sebastian Mierzwa, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

More lighthearted, and definitely in the “sham-Gothick” category, is the former Mill at Howsham Hall, East Riding of Yorkshire (1760), probably by Carr, rescued from dereliction, with jokey quatrefoils, insubstantial hood-mouldings, knobbly pinnacles, and strange, ogee-headed recesses. Unfortunately, during the restoration of this little building, insufficient attention was given to the glazing-bars of some of the new windows, which ignore the geometries which should have been dictated by the pointed arches. The attribution to Carr is largely because he carried out works at the great Elizabethan Howsham Hall, for Nathaniel Cholmley (1721-91) in the 1770s.  

Former water-mill at Howsham, 1760 (Kognos, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

This book clearly owes a debt (fully acknowledged) to Brian Wragg (2000): The Life and Works of John Carr of York (York: Oblong Creative Ltd.), edited by Giles Worsley, but itself lacks a bibliography or footnotes which could have further illuminated Hall’s texts. Furthermore, the illustrations are bunched in batches rather than distributed throughout the book and placed near where they are mentioned in the essays: indeed there is no pointer in the essays to any number which might suggest the presence of a picture lurking elsewhere in the volume. Both these matters seriously disadvantage the reader, and a comparison with the Wragg book demonstrates that the latter is far more “user-friendly”. Hall’s essays should be read as an addendum to the essential information in Wragg: it is a huge shame more could not have been done on the editorial side and with the organisation of the book to make this hefty tome more accessible, informative, useful, and usable. One has to work hard to extract information, and life is difficult enough without that as well. This all adds up to a great pity, as Hall was deeply absorbed in his study of Carr over many decades: his pertinent observations on the man and his work are certainly worth sharing with all lovers of Georgian architecture, so it is regrettable they were not made more accessible in this new publication. 

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