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Sacred Mysteries: A country house architect builds his own church

A student measuring the Corinthian capital of the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Forum, by Henry Parke
A student measuring the Corinthian capital of the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Forum, by Henry Parke - Bridgeman/Sir John Soane's Museum

John Carr (“of York”, as he called himself and is still called) was born in 1723, 300 years ago, and as an architect left spectacular buildings such as the Crescent built in the 1780s in the spa town of Buxton. Its curve was deliberately made as enjoyable from the rear as at the front. Behind it are the vast colonnaded stables, built for 110 horses, and later covered by a huge dome.

The son of a stonemason and builder, Carr, though careful in his costings, made himself a very rich man by his architecture. But he spent £8,000 building a new church at Horbury, the village where he was born, three miles from Wakefield.

In St Peter and St Leonard were placed modest wall-tablet monuments to his father, Robert and himself. His own (in Latin) reads in part: “If you want to know, O reader, the extent of his liberality and piety, and how he excelled in originality and skill, look at this sacred building, the most praiseworthy product of his own munificence”.

As you enter the church on the south side, you see the tablets, bordered with Classical ornament, on the opposite wall, either side of two tall Corinthian columns marking the aisles. On the capitals the notional acanthus shoots intertwine, a pattern taken from the ruins of the temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum (above) and copied by James Gibbs at St Martin in the Fields, London. This pattern of capital had been reproduced in the Four Books of Architecture by Andrea Palladio (who thought the ruined temple was to Jupiter Stator).

Carr was an English Palladian architect, and “no Georgian architect was wholly successful when they attempted to fuse a porticoed Classical temple and an essentially Gothic spire” as at Horbury.

This judgment is that of Ivan Hall, the doyen of John Carr studies, now aged 90. It comes in his remarkable new book, John Carr of York, Collected Essays, edited by Kenneth Powell. To its 500 pages are added 148 full-page colour illustrations. But it represents only those parts of the author’s work that have been extracted from his computer. Naturally there is some repetition.

At Horbury, Carr had planned an open screen of Corinthian columns not only at each side, but at the front and back of the nave. The effect would have been like Robert Adam’s screens in the great library at Kenwood House. At Horbury, these do not survive.

The book gives most space to country houses, in which Carr with his Whig patrons excelled, but it covers his churches too, such as Ravenfield, with its curiously set ogee windows, Denton with its open octagon tower, and Bierley “perhaps Carr’s best”, all in Yorkshire. Of the churches attributed to Carr, five are Classical, but seven Gothic.

In 1770, when Carr was Lord Mayor of York, he was commissioned by the Dean and Chapter of York Minster to survey and repair it. When he got to work on the chapter house in 1797, he found a problem. Instead of a stone vault, its builders had spanned the space with timber, making unnecessary a central supporting pillar. The underside of the roof was panelled with wood, richly painted. Carr repaired the great structural trusses but replaced the decayed wooden ceiling with lath and plaster, reproducing the ribbed pattern but giving quite a different character of painted decoration.

Ivan Hall mentions that the abstract panels of stained glass placed in York’s clerestory windows by one of Carr’s regular artisans, William Peckitt, influenced the work of John Piper. This sort of detail makes the new volume in part like the valuable material left by the antiquary John Aubrey.

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