Great British Architects: John Carr of York (1723-1807)

Although he worked from York and most of his work was in the north of England, John Carr was an architect of national standing, admired by his contemporaries. His reputation was recognised when he was elected an honorary member of the exclusive London Architects’ Club in 1791 and by his representation in volume five of the architectural compilation Vitruvius Britannicus (1771) by 15 plates (Kent had 12 and Adam nine).

Carr is notable both for the consistent quality of his designs-‘never showy, always verging on the side of restraint, his buildings show an effortless ability to develop and vary a classical theme’, according to his biographer Giles Worsley-and also the large scale of his practice, spread over 60 years and hundreds of commissions, stretching from Scotland to Oporto in Portugal. Carr was not an innovator-he followed fashions from London, Rococo to neo-Classical, but his work was always rooted in Palladianism, solid and handsome. He was, in many ways, the archetypical Georgian architect.


Carr was born the eldest of nine children at Horbury in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the son of a well-established family of decently prosperous stonemasons. There is, nevertheless, a Dick Whittington, rags-to-riches element in his life story: he rose to be Lord Mayor of York (twice) and armigerous (grant 1805) owner of a country house, and he died with £150,000.

His father owned two small quarries and undertook building work, and John started working with him at the age of 14, showing early talent in designing. He derived his understanding of materials, construction and draughtsmanship from his father. At 23, Carr married Sarah Hinchcliffe, 10 years his senior. They had no children, and he adopted his brother’s son William as his heir.  

Carr set up as an architect on his own at the time of his marriage, his first independent building being Huthwaite Hall near Horbury, in 1748, and he built Kirby Hall, designed by Lord Burlington and Roger Morris for Stephen Thompson, who described him as a ‘clever Young Fellow of a Mason at the Head of my works’. The deaths of Burlington and Morris left Carr in sole control and, in Vitruvius Britannicus, Kirby was described as ‘Executed, and the inside finishings, by J. Carr, Architect’.  

Thompson himself was an amateur architect, and Carr’s connection with Kirby and its owner polished his architectural education. Carr was now established as Yorkshire’s up-and-coming architect, his buildings notable for good proportions.

By 1751, he had left Horbury and established himself in York, the regional capital, with its archbishop, assizes and social life. He became a Freemason the following year, designing town houses for the Yorkshire gentry and the new grandstand at Knaves-mire racecourse, which brought him to the attention of all the local gentry, including Edwin Lascelles of Harewood, who asked him to design his new seat.  

Harewood was the great house that made his reputation. There, too, he met Adam, whose style had a considerable impact on his own mature interior decoration.  Wealth, civic office, surveyorships of bridges in the West and North Ridings followed, and the patronage of the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham at Wentworth Woodhouse, for whom he designed the stables, additions to the house, and later Lord Rockingham’s mausoleum, as well as model estate buildings.

Carr worked on several town houses and designed Basildon Park in Berkshire for a rich nabob of Yorkshire descent. He was also responsible for the Hospital of San Antonio in Portugal (1763-1843), a vast quadrangle of granite over 500sq ft with a Doric portico.  

Carr continued in practice as an architect into his eighties, which he put down to never drinking less than ‘six or seven glasses of wine at dinner and a Glass of goodneques at night after swallowing the yolk of an poach’d egg’, but, in his last year, his faculties slowly began to fail and he died on February 22, 1807. His nephew William wrote that ‘he had a very easy death and was perfectly sensible to the last moment’. He was buried in Horbury church, which he had designed and built-and paid for-himself.

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