Foremost architect of the Georgian period in Yorkshire

Plaques in Castlegate on Castlegate House and Fairfax House, YO1 9RN; in Micklegate at YO1 8JX

Castlegate House, opposite Fairfax House (photo Rachel Semlyen for Civic Trust)

John Carr was born on 28 April 1723 at Horbury near Wakefield in the West Riding of Yorkshire. His parents were Robert Carr and Rose Lascels. He was the eldest of nine children. The Carr family were relatively prosperous and owned two quarries and a number of modest properties in the area around Horbury. John Carr would rise from these modest origins to become the foremost architect in Yorkshire of the Georgian period.

The Carr family were well-established masons and, in his early years, John referred to himself as a “stonecutter” and mason. In the eighteenth century the architectural profession had not been formally established. The designing of buildings was often a gentleman’s pursuit, an occupation sometimes dabbled in following the Grand Tour during which the ruins of Greek and Roman architecture had been studied. Builders and master masons were responsible for the construction of the majority of buildings often following designs published in pattern books or adapting drawings provided by an “architect” who rarely visited the site.

Early career

Existing records of John’s early life and also of his built work are patchy; where work was for an established aristocratic family, detailed records, including John’s many letters, survive in estate archives. Documentation of design and building work undertaken for the merchant and middle classes is more ephemeral due to the changing fortunes of these families and the eventual sale of the properties and dispersal or disposal of records. For some reason, John Carr kept scant office records so there are a large number of buildings which can only be attributed to him on stylistic grounds in the absence of documentary proof.

John left school at 14 to join the family firm and demonstrated an early aptitude for design and the mason’s craft. His skills were obviously valued by the merchants and squires of the West Riding as he was responsible for the construction of a number of substantial houses in the 1740s including Huthwaite Hall near Thurgoland (1748), Kirby Hall at Little Ouseburn, 12 miles north-west of York (1748-52), Thorp Arch Hall (1750-6), and Arncliffe Hall at Ingleby Arncliffe, 30 miles north of York (1753). It is notable that Kirby Hall was designed by the influential Lord Burlington who was the key figure in the promotion of the Palladian style of architecture in England. At an early stage in his career, John Carr’s work was recognised by leading aristocrats in the North of England and this would propel him into the highest levels of society and result in a flood of commissions in the years to come.

These early houses set the style for much of John’s later work. All the expensive architectural detail was concentrated on the main façade of the new block and, as would be expected from a master mason, there was much finely worked stone: rusticated basements, Gibbsian window surrounds and Venetian windows, in most examples topped off by a steeply pitched roof to shrug off the Yorkshire rain. Overall, however, the composition of the exterior was always restrained, an approach which would make his work popular with the conservative Yorkshire upper classes. In contrast the interiors were more elaborate with richly carved door surrounds, fireplaces, rococo plasterwork ceilings: whatever ornament and decoration that the client’s purse could bear.

Micklegate House (photo Rachel Semlyen for Civic Trust)

Freeman of York

John Carr’s business was prospering to such an extent that he moved to York in the early 1750s. The exact date that he took up residence in the city is not known but, in October 1751, he acquired a house in Skeldergate. In 1752 he applied to be made a freeman of York, a requirement which was necessary for him to practice his profession in the city. There was a large application fee involved and the sum of £25 was deducted from the professional fees paid for his very first commission in York: the design of the enclosure to Pikeing Well (1752-6), a medicinal spring on the New Walk promenade along the River Ouse.

Despite being responsible for the design of several major country houses in Yorkshire, John Carr remained faithful to his craft as a mason. He rarely delegated work and continued to undertake the most minor tasks including maintenance work at the Mansion House and the Assembly Rooms in York. On 6 March 1752, for example, he was commissioned to ‘make three pifsing places, Two without Doors and one within Doors’ at the Assembly Rooms. At the other end of the scale of commissions, John became much in demand for the design and construction of the most impressive new townhouses in York including 47 Bootham for Mary Thompson (1752) and 54 Micklegate for the Revd Edmund Garforth (1753-7). Amongst his finest work in the 1760s are Castlegate House (1762) and the interiors of Fairfax House (1761-5).

Surveyor of bridges

Before the coming of the railways, communications in Georgian England were slow and potentially dangerous; roads were in poor condition and although the days of the highwayman were nearing their end – one the most notorious, Dick Turpin, was hanged in York in 1739 – robbers and vagabonds plagued the unwary traveller. Despite the dangers, John Carr spent a great deal of time on horseback visiting his various projects and clients in the North of England. The Carr family firm was also appointed as surveyor for one of the key elements of the Georgian road network: bridges. One of John and his father’s major legacies was a detailed record of all the major bridges in the West and North Ridings. They were responsible for assessing their condition, undertaking any necessary repairs and for the design and construction of new bridges.

Racecourse grandstands

The turning point for John Carr in his progression from country mason to prosperous provincial architect to an architect of national importance came with a competition entry for a new grandstand at York Racecourse (1754-7). The previous racecourse in York was subject to flooding, so a new site was established south of the city at Knavesmire. York race meetings were one of the highpoints in the Yorkshire aristocracy’s social calendar, so the commission to design suitable accommodation for the nobility was one of the prime contracts of the decade. The Marquis of Rockingham was the main supporter of the project; he would go on to be Prime Minister twice and become one of John Carr’s most important patrons, principally at the Marquis’s estate at Wentworth Woodhouse. Carr’s design won against stiff competition from leading architects such as James Paine; his unique, bold and straightforward design set a new model for the design of grandstands with its service rooms on the ground floor and a large assembly room on the first floor opening on to a full length “miranda”, a large terrace overlooking the course. Two other commissions for racecourse grandstands followed, at Doncaster and Nottingham. These have all now been demolished although a section of the ground floor arcade survives at York located behind the modern stands.

The list of more than 140 subscribers to the York grandstand included most of John Carr’s clients for the remainder of his professional career, setting the seal on his position as the leading architect in Yorkshire of the Georgian era. He was appointed architect to the vast Rockingham estates and a string of major commissions followed including Harewood House (1759-71) for the Lascelles family. This was his longest running project and marked a change of style for John as he came under the influence of Robert Adam who was responsible for the interiors at the house. During the eighteenth century, buoyed up by increasing wealth, aristocrats in Yorkshire set about improving their country estates. John Carr’s workbook filled up with commissions for alterations, extensions, huge new stable blocks and other estate buildings.

Aristocratic stable blocks

There was an element of rivalry and competition in the money spent on accommodation for a gentleman’s horses. The impressive stable block at Castle Howard (1771-81) was built for the 5th Earl of Carlisle. When the 11th Duke of Devonshire set about transforming Buxton into a stylish spa town to rival Bath, he turned to John Carr who designed a series of buildings most notable of which are The Crescent (1780-90) and the Great Stables (1786-90). New country houses in Yorkshire included Constable Burton Hall (1762-8) and, John Carr’s favourite commission, Denton Park (1772-8). Public buildings included the Town Hall at Newark (1773-6) and an oversees project on a massive scale, the Hospital de Santo Antonio do Porto, Oporto in Portugal (1769-1843). How John Carr gained the latter commission remains a mystery.

Increasing wealth enabled John to build a large town house for himself in Skeldergate (1765-6). He had acquired a house on part of the site in 1751 and by 1764-5 had purchased two adjoining properties which were demolished to make way for the impressive new building. A site was leased on the opposite side of Skeldergate, adjoining the River Ouse, to create a formal garden. One of the attractions of the site to a businessman such as Carr was that it could be used for trade and the delivery of building materials and other supplies via the river. But wealth and prosperity and a social position in York came with civic responsibilities which John Carr found irksome. Freemen of York were required to serve on the City Council; an appointment could only be avoided by the payment of a substantial fine. On 11 January 1766, John was elected a city chamberlain. The following year he was appointed sheriff but, as his practice was so busy, he paid the fine of £70. In 1769, however, he was selected as alderman and justice of the peace. The fine for not accepting in this case was in excess of £200 so John took up the position and this led to him becoming Lord Mayor of York in 1770. He served a second term as Lord Mayor in 1785.

Retirement in the country

In old age, John Carr suffered from an inflammation of the eyes. Although he retained his town house in Skeldergate, he moved out of the city to Askham Hall in 1801 to be looked after by his niece, Amelia Clark. He continued to carry out work for his most valued clients and enjoyed travelling around the north of the country on an annual summer tour. He died at Askham Hall on 22 February 1807 and was interred in the family vault at St Peter’s Church, Horbury (1791-4), a church he had built at the height of his career as a contribution to the enhancement of the town of his birth.

John’s nephew, William Carr continued the practice but, as William had no children, there would be no dynasty of Carr architects as John had hoped. The practice would survive, however. Walter Brierley, known as the ‘Lutyens of the North’, became the senior partner in the Edwardian period and the firm continues today in York as Brierley, Leckenby, Keighley and Groom. It claims to be the oldest architectural practice not just in the UK but in the world.

Principal buildings in York by John Carr

1752 47 Bootham

1752-6 Pikeing Well, New Walk

1753  Micklegate House, Nos.88-90 Micklegate

1753-7 Garforth House, 54 Micklegate, attrib.

1754-7 Knavesmire Grandstand, demolished

1755  Petergate House, Petergate

1761-5 Fairfax House, Castlegate, alterations

1762-5  Castlegate House, Castlegate

1765-6  Skeldergate House, Skeldergate, demolished

1772-6  Assize Courts, York Castle

1774-7  County Lunatic Asylum (Bootham Park Hospital)

1779-83  Female Prison, York Castle (Castle Museum)




Brian Wragg commenced a long overdue book on the work of John Carr but he died before it could be published. Giles Worsley edited his research and this was published in 2000 by Oblong.

Brian Wragg, Giles Worsley ed., The Life and Works of John Carr of York (York, 2000)



© Richard Wilcock