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Yorkshire gold. Review of John Carr of York: Collected Essays By Ivan Hall. Review by Clive Aslet

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Harewood House (built 1759-1771), designed by John Carr and Robert Adam

This is a treasure trove of a book.

Now 90, Dr Ivan Hall is a man of the north, having studied at Manchester Grammar School and Manchester University and having taught at the University of Hull.

Yorkshire gold


John Carr of York: Collected Essays

By Ivan Hall

Paul Holberton Publishing £50

This is a treasure trove of a book.

Now 90, Dr Ivan Hall is a man of the north, having studied at Manchester Grammar School and Manchester University and having taught at the University of Hull.

He knows more than any living person about John Carr of York, and now this enormous erudition is being shared with the public, through a collection of his essays.

It displays the sort of learning that does not entirely belong to this generation. A 21st-century historian might obsess about the links that some of Carr’s patrons – notably the Lascelles family of Harewood House – had with the slave trade.

John Carr of York, however, is a woke-free zone. Like his contemporary the late John Harris, Hall combines careful, scholarly research with the eye of a connoisseur of his subject. He really looks at buildings. His familiarity with the Georgian period means that illuminating asides sparkle on every page.

The title of the book uses the appellation by which Carr is mostly known. ‘Of York’ shows that he was a proud Yorkshireman but tends, in our London-centric world, to relegate him to regional rather than national importance.

Reluctant to lose income by employing many assistants, Carr travelled endlessly around projects on horseback, but, unlike Robert Adam or William Chambers, lacked the glamour a grand tour would have bestowed. He never went to Portugal despite designing the hospital of Santo António de Misericórdia – his largest work – for Oporto.

Yet, at home, he could rule the kingdom of Yorkshire with unrivalled authority, building and altering country houses, designing the lodges, farmhouses, model villages and enormous stables that went with them, erecting town houses and suburban villas, often – with the pre-eminent example of Fairfax House in York – now demolished, and working on over 60 bridges. The bridges were needed to support the county’s developing economy.

While Lancashire had only two major centres of population, Yorkshire contained numerous smaller towns, each of which was a hive of activity. Wentworth Woodhouse was built on coal. The Duke of Devonshire developed the spa town of Buxton after windfall profits from a copper mine. Improved farming brought more general prosperity to landowners. The Royd family of Halifax built a town palace flanked by warehouses, showing the profits to be reaped from Yorkshire’s centuries-old textile industry.

Today’s Yorkshire Dales National Park was, ‘in Carr’s day, a rural landscape scattered with mines, ore-crushers, smelters and other buildings needed to service the flourishing if scattered industrial communities’.

Carr’s own practice reflected the dynamism of the age. Not only an architect, he also served as a surveyor – hence the bridges – and took on the family quarry, previously run by his father Robert, who was also an architect.

Rather than billing clients for individual projects, he would undertake to do all the architectural work of an estate for an annual retainer. The architectural historian Sir John Summerson disparaged him as being a mere businessman but he was a canny one, who adopted a coat of arms (to which he was not strictly entitled) and built a parish church for his birthplace, Horbury outside Wakefield, at his own expense.

Designed as an octagon with transepts and attached tower and spire, St Peter and St Leonard, Horbury, is not entirely successful but contains a vaunting inscription: ‘If you want to know, O reader, the extent of his liberality and piety, and how he excelled in originality and skill, lok [sic] at this sacred building, the most praiseworthy product of his own munificence.’

Clearly Carr was no shrinking violet. He had his own opinions too. He was such ‘an ardent Rockinghamite Whig’ that the Archbishop of York turned to the Roman Catholic architect Thomas Atkinson to extend his palace, Bishopsthorpe.

Readers who want a narrative history of Carr’s work should read this book alongside Brian Wragg and Giles Worsley’s The Life and Works of John Carr of York, published in 2000. Hall’s work is more episodic yet liberally strewn with insights.

He is fascinating on the economics of building, for example, explaining the economies that could be made by using the plain Doric order rather than the flamboyant Corinthian, or by eschewing the fluting on columns.

At Constable Burton, an intended cartouche remains a block of unworked stone, in readiness for a carver who never came, perhaps on grounds of cost. ‘Mr Pease’ often appears in the accounts as a supplier of paint – Joseph Pease of Hull having stolen the latest technology of crushing oilseeds from the Netherlands after touring that country in the guise of a blind fiddler.

Only Hall, with his intimate familiarity with Carr’s work, could describe how light plays on the estate village at Harewood, causing Carr to adapt the mouldings to suit different aspects. What riches there are here. Congratulations to Kenneth Powell for editing the diverse material comprising this work and to Hall’s family for cheering it on.

Clive Aslet is author of The Story of the Country House

This story was from March 2023 issue. Subscribe Now