John Carter 1748-1817

York Cathedral : description of the door way entering into the chapter house [manuscript]

View the Scrapbook

It is difficult to tell from his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography whether John Carter was admired or reviled. This murky picture is due in part to the way in which he approached his life’s work: to promote the virtues of Gothic architecture, convert the taste of a generation1 and defend the country from ‘Innovation’ (essentially, anything that wasn’t Gothic). His career saw him become England’s first architectural journalist, writing for Builder’s Magazine (1774-1778) and later for Gentleman’s Magazine (1797-1817). Highly critical in his writing output, he managed to start some long-lasting feuds with architects and writers alike. He even had an arch-nemesis in the form of James Wyatt, an architectural restorator whom Carter occasionally referred to as the ‘Destroyer’. When taken in the context of his writing, that he had an arch-nemesis doesn’t even come as a surprise.

"The encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries." - From the Society of Antiquaries’ Royal Charter, 1751

Coming from a long line of sculptors and architectural draughtsmen, John Carter was a member of the Society of Antiquaries. At the time, the Society was a rather mixed group of aristocrats, scholars and tradesmen2 that was both respected and ridiculed - the art historian Horace Walpole once described them as “...ridiculous...dry and dull”3. Despite this, Carter received praise for a number of prints he produced for the Society and was later sponsored to produce ‘Architectural drawings of the different religious houses in the Kingdom’. This allowed him to travel the country, producing highly detailed drawings of Gothic architectural features, while also writing about the monstrosities of ‘Innovation’ he had witnessed.

Why did he hate innovation so much? It is possible that Carter dreamed of things returning to how they were in the fourteenth century, as far as Gothic architecture was concerned. With each instalment of his writing, he attacked those who “neglected or despoiled England’s medieval heritage”4. This is how he came to blows with James Wyatt5, an architect responsible for a large amount of work on cathedrals and churches around the country. Carter probably objected to the way in which Wyatt went about his ‘improvements’, as they often simplified aspects of Gothic design6. Criticised for being overly emotional in his writing, Carter’s regular written complaints about Wyatt’s work in Durham, Salisbury, Hereford and Lichfield actually prevented Wyatt from being admitted to the Society of Antiquaries. Even a wealthy patron of Wyatt’s got involved in the drama, who started to argue with Carter via Gentleman’s Magazine under a variety of pseudonyms7. The fact that Carter had never built anything himself was often brought up in these arguments, which could possibly be at the root of Carter’s aggression towards Wyatt.

This brings us to John Carter’s scrapbook, which is being held in the university’s Special Collections. Within its pages is a detailed account of the entrance to the Minster’s chapter house, followed by a number of his drawings. It is possible that the information in this scrapbook fed into his published work for the Society of Antiquaries, or perhaps Carter used the scrapbook to record additional observations. Pages 13 and 16 of the scrapbook illustrate the detail with which Carter made his drawings, taking into account smaller features in the stonework as well as overall structures. As he liked to measure things, this imbues each drawing with a sense of their true scale. Some of the drawings come across as works-in-progress, containing fragments of the bigger picture.

For all his complaints about ‘Innovation’ and the work of James Wyatt, it is amusing to read that Carter was very happy while he was working in York, as he writes in his account of the Minster. In one Gentleman’s Magazine article, he wrote of his first experiences in the city in 1790:

“refreshment was entirely forgotten and I...hurried [in] at the South door. What with the impression of the moment, and the light before me, [of] architectural space, and one universal glow of “pale religious light”, the “full voiced choir” chanting their daily orisons, I by an involuntary impulse fell prostrate on the pavement...each sense gave way, and I closed my eyes full of the enchanting delirium!” - Gentleman’s Magazine 76, 1806

As melodramatic as the above quote sounds, it comes as a bit of a relief that there was still some architecture in England that he actually liked. This leads me to believe that the scrapbook we hold in our Special Collections is particularly unique, as Carter was likely to have been happy while producing it. This marks a bit of a contrast from most of his career, which had been a personal crusade against the changing attitudes towards architecture. Carter even returned to York in 1806 and spent five more months working on measuring and drawing the Minster8. Although Carter was not entirely successful in convincing a nation of the virtues of Gothic architecture in his lifetime, his mentality was prophetic of the next generation, which saw Pugin pioneer the Gothic Revival. This raises the question of whether the Revival would have happened when it did without John Carter’s groundwork.

  1. Crook, J. M. (1995). John Carter and the mind of the Gothic Revival. Occasional paper (Society of Antiquaries of London) 17, pp. 6-7. London: Maney.
  2. Crook, J. M. (1995). pp. 1
  3. ibid.
  4. Crook, J. M. (1995). pp. 31
  5. For more information: Wikipedia article
  6. Crook, J. M. (1995). pp. 35
  7. Crook, J. M. (1995). pp. 40
  8. Crook, J. M. (1995). pp. 33
  9. ibid.

Robin McKinlay, Digital York