Georgian Society for East Yorkshire

John Carr of York - Architect (1723 -1807)

John Carr

John Carr

by FRANCIS F. JOHNSON F.S.A.

The recent exhibition in the Ferens Art Gallery devoted to John Carr has not only done timely honour, but focused attention on his important and fascinating career. Unlike many figures of the past, Carr's reputation has never fallen into complete oblivion; however, although many have written about him, we still await a definitive biography.

Born in 1723 at Horbury near Wakefield, the son of a modest stone mason and quarry owner, he had a somewhat meagre education, but his basic training in building skills was thorough going and excellent. His ability, intelligence and agreeable character ensured the rest.

In 1748 he had the good fortune to be employed by Stephen Thompson the Banker, as overseer for the building of his new house, Kirby Hall, Great Ouseburn. Here, the greater part of the designing was done by Lord Burlington, aided by Roger Morris, both of them figures of paramount importance in the world of Architecture at that time. Burlington who took his title from Bridlington was a personality of European significance widely known and appreciated in France and elsewhere. Their influence on John Carr can be seen right through his working life. His classical buildings, lucid and clean, are always basically Palladian.

The competition in 1754 for the Grand Stand on the Knaves-mire at York also marks a further stage in his career. He was fortunate again in winning this, and the fame it brought in its train launched him on his fashionable practice.

The list of his public works includes the Town Halls of Chesterfield and Newark, the latter a very distinguished building illustrated with a number of Carr's other major works in the Vitruvius Brittanicus. In York itself his own house in Skelder-gate (1765) was destroyed a number of years ago but several others of importance remain, and such public buildings as the Assize Courts, female prison (now Castle Museum and Bootham Park Hospital. All these buildings are robust in character and display Carr's uncluttered straightforward classicism. Like most architects, Carr borrowed from various sources, but his synthesis is his own. In a number of details he worked out what was virtually a formula, seen prominently in door-steads and certain interior features.

Despite this there is a goodly measure of variety in his work. When given his head, Carr was a sensible and functional planner. His staircases are good, and those made of stone or marble show considerable variety in shape, and their finely detailed iron balustrades. They are usually lighted from the top by an eye or clerestory windows. His wooden staircases mostly follow a rectangular formula based on masonry forms, and are notable for their daring carpentry. Touches of real genius appear in such things as the grand staircase at Wentworth Woodhouse, the Saloon at Ribston, the hexagonal Dining Room at Grimston Garth or the Hall at Raby. (The last two are Gothic). The Ribston interior displays in its splendour the result of Carr's contact with Robert Adam, who did the interior decoration at Harewood where Carr himself designed both the house and the beautiful village.

In the East Riding, we have not many of John Carr's important works, but the best are Everingham Park; the wing added to Lairgate Hall, Beverley; Grimston Garth and the Stables at Winestead. Fangfoss Hall is probably his, and so are the rebuilding of Boynton Church and alterations to the Hall there. His interiors and other features at Kilnwick were destroyed when that house was sacrificed. He may have supplied the plans for the fascinating pied-a-terre by the sea known once as Hilderthorpe Hall (Flat Top Farm) at Bridlington. This was recently bull-dozed to the ground and nothing saved so far as is known. Unlike Wood, who moved to Bath, or William Kent and Thomas Ripley who both went to London, John Carr remained firmly in the old Northern metropolis of York, which was not only strategic, but also provided him with a reserve of superb craftsmen whom he employed consistently. Despite this provincial setting, his fame spread far from his native county, and possibly through his Thompson-Croft connections (pointed out by Captain Hildyard) he was invited to design a hospital in Oporto, which still stands. In Ireland he was responsible for Milton House for Lord Fitz-william, and at Basildon in Berkshire, a new mansion for Sir Francis Sykes. There are a number of houses west of the Pennines including the splendid Tabley Hall, Platt Hall and Lytham. Important work was carried out in Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and County Durham, and nearer home there were such houses as Heath, Harewood and Burton Constable. The full list is a very long one.

Towards the close of his professional life came Farnley Hall near Leeds, with its severely simple exterior, the main feature of which is one of Carr's favourite octangular bays. Inside this Carr's grasp of the Neo-classic idiom reaches its ultimate in the wonderfully elegant and refined interiors.

John Carr was highly competent, industrious, fearless in his dealings, and forthright with his advice. No shadows on his character have come down to us. We know little about his married life, and one would imagine that in such a busy orbit as his, there could be little time for the arts of home. He was a Magistrate, and twice Lord Mayor of York, When the Architects' club was formed in London, he was the only provincial architect who was invited to join. Many of his commissions were princely, and in those days there was little to prevent the architect, or his family, from contracting for parts of the building. His short retirement was spent on tours, visiting his former works with his nieces, who benefited greatly after his death, as he had become, deservedly, very wealthy. His body was laid to rest in the beautiful church which he designed and built, at his own expense, in his native Horbury; a fitting mausoleum for a great man.

(Written 1975)

Fairfax House, York

Fairfax House 2011

Extensively adapted in the twentieth century as a cinema and dance hall, Fairfax House was saved from decay and returned to its former glory by York Civic Trust in 1982-84. One of the finest townhouses in the country, it has splendid Georgian (John Carr) plasterwork and woodwork, and a collection of furniture, clocks, paintings and porcelain, including the Noel ... (read more...)

Farnley Hall, North Yorkshire

Farnley Hall from the South.

The hall has been occupied by various branches of the Fawkes family since the middle ages. In the 1780ís Walter Hawkesworth Fawkes commissioned John Carr to add the large Georgian block at the front of the building. His son, Walter Ramsden Hawksworth Fawkes, was a friend of J.M.W Turner and had a large collection of his paintings which much ... (read more...)

Raby Castle, County Durham

Raby Castle

The castle was built mainly in the 14th century for the Nevill family, who lived there until 1569 when the castle and lands were forfeited to the Crown after the failure of the Rising of the North. Since 1626 it has been home to the family of Lord Barnard. York's architect John Carr worked on the Castle, raising the ... (read more...)

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