A late-flowering of the Arts & Crafts in Pembrokeshire: the heartfelt hands-on churchmanship of John Coates Carter
By Alec Hamilton
John Coates Carter (1859-1927) has been called, “the leading Welsh Arts & Crafts architect.” But he wasn’t Welsh. He was born in Norfolk.
He has also been described as “the most distinguished architect working within the Arts & Crafts tradition to base his practice in South Wales.” But he spent almost as much time, and did rather more work as an architect, after moving to Gloucestershire.
He designed a number of idiosyncratic churches in South Wales, and, in Penarth, inventive houses and public buildings. But it was in Pembrokeshire, and late in his life, that his genius shone forth most strongly, in works of intense personal commitment and religious faith. He became not merely an architect, but something more profound: an Arts & Crafts church craftsman.
Coates Carter marched – as did so many in the Arts & Crafts – to his own, different drummer. He is perhaps best known – not only in Wales, but internationally – for the imposing monastery on Caldey Island (1906-13), built for the Anglican Benedictines, and now home to a Cistercian order of Trappists. It is by far his most substantial work. Yet, whilst in the middle of this great task, in 1908, bizarrely and inexplicably, he and his family (including his elderly and sick mother-in-law) moved to Prestbury, a village near Cheltenham, where he remained for the rest of his life. At his most successful, Coates Carter simply walked away.
Caldey ought to have made his name. Even though it is today comparatively hard of access, it is well-known, at least to architectural historians: “the most complete example of Arts and Crafts style in the country” according to the delightfully over-enthusiastic editors of Wikipedia. Yet he never used Caldey as a springboard to other, larger commissions. Perhaps this was the diffidence and self-effacement characteristic of many Arts & Crafts architects – admired in Philip Webb, and church architects like Charles Spooner, F. C. Eden and Walter Tapper, all less well-known than they might be, so little did they care for fame.
Why he left Wales is unexplained. He had set up on his own account in 1904, having run the Welsh office of John Pollard Seddon (1827-1906) since about 1895. Also unexplained is his choice of Prestbury. As far as can be found, he had no Gloucestershire family connections whatever, and no patron in the county until some years later. It was hardly a move to pursue glittering prizes. His first job in Cheltenham (while still working on Caldey), was the re-modelling of a back-street meeting hall into a cinema.
Even why Coates Carter became an architect is unclear. He was from respectable, rather successful Norfolk farming stock. Some time in the 1870s he was articled to John Bond Pearce (1843-1903), a Norwich architect, who designed Great Yarmouth Town Hall (1882) and other unremarkable provincial buildings. In 1880 Coates Carter met a rather more prominent figure, John Pollard Seddon, a nationally known church architect, in Great Yarmouth, supervising the construction of his new church of St James (1878-1880). Seddon went on to be Diocesan architect to Llandaff from 1886: his principal ecclesiastical work was at Llandaff Cathedral and he designed more than 30 new churches in Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. Seddon was clubbable, sophisticated and artistic, a friend of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of which his brother Thomas was a member. He knew William Morris, Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown, John Ruskin and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He was a member of FABS, the Foreign Architectural Book Society, “a semi-secret coterie… the archaeological elite of the RIBA.” The members included William Burges, architect of Cardiff Castle. These were rather potent and influential connections – whether Coates Carter benefitted is, as so much about him, unknown.
By 1885 Seddon had taken Coates Carter, then just 26, into partnership and he flourished. He was Secretary of the Cardiff, South Wales & Monmouth Architects Society in 1892 and in 1900 its President. The same year he was elected Fellow of the RIBA.
In 1901 he was living in a house he designed for himself, 20 Victoria Road, Penarth. His widowed mother and his sister were living next door, at 22, also designed by him. Meanwhile, he was building a far more adventurous house, the Red House (1901), a few doors away. Its exaggerated mannerisms rival those of C. F. A. Voysey (an earlier pupil of Seddon’s): a barge-boarded awning rather than a dormer, an elongated finial like a flag pole, asymmetrical elevations, and a dazzling variety of eccentric windows. Seddon died in February 1906. The coast was clear for Coates Carter to become Cardiff’s premier architect, certainly its foremost ecclesiastical architect. However, he shied away from the opportunity. By 1908 he was gone. Was he afraid of life in Cardiff without the protection and encouragement of Seddon? Had he attracted the envy, dislike or wrath of other Cardiff architects? Did he expect, after Seddon’s death, to be appointed Diocesan Architect to Llandaff in turn, perhaps? Did he go off in a huff? Had the Caldey Abbey job made him persona non grata among his fellow architects? Was he feeling foreign and exposed now – an interloper?
The mysterious move to Prestbury gives his career all the climax of a damp squib. His Gloucestershire houses are workaday: dull by comparison with anything he did in Wales. Most of the domestic jobs for which we have evidence are deeply mundane – staircases, windows, humble extensions. So, what was it about Prestbury that drew him?
Roger Beacham, founder of Prestbury Local History Society, has looked into Coates Carter’s life and work in the village, and I am grateful to him for allowing me to draw on his considerable work and expertise. Prestbury in 1908 was a thriving centre of Anglo-Catholicism. Both the vicar and the assistant curate had sent donations from their own pockets to the Caldey community – a tenuous connection, but a real one. The available evidence strongly suggests Coates Carter was drawn to Anglo-Catholic worship. But, no matter how sympathetic the churchmanship in Prestbury, it seems a long way to come for that, especially as there was a significant community of Anglo-Catholics in Cardiff. Coates Carter was a sidesman at All Saints, Penarth, and if that was not sufficiently Anglo-Catholic, he could easily have found a church in the city that was. Besides, with the work at Caldey continuing, he was often back in Wales on visits – 170 miles from his new Gloucestershire home.
Another suggestion is that the new monastery at Prinknash, near Painswick, Glos, was the draw. In 1888 the Prinknash estate was bought by Thomas Dyer-Edwardes, a startlingly rich Anglo-Catholic. In September 1910 he invited the Abbot of Caldey, Father Aelred (the man who had asked Coates Carter to take on the building of Caldey Abbey), to visit Prinknash, where he made him an amazing offer. As Dyer-Edwardes had no son, he wished to gift the Prinknash estate to the Benedictines of Caldey. Nothing came of this immediately, as the Benedictines had quite enough on their hands with establishing Caldey. But, in the end, it did come to pass – though not until 1928, by which time the Benedictines had gone over to Rome (1913), as had Dyer-Edwardes (1924), who had also, by then, died (1926).
Coates Carter had by no means abandoned work in Wales. He was absorbed in his new church of SS Julius and Aaron, Newport, Mon. (He produced four separate and different schemes from 1910 to 1923.) He designed St John, Wainfelin, Pontypool, Mon (first design 1908, building begun 1912, and more 1924-6). It was strange, though, that he should be doing so from Prestbury, when working from Cardiff would have been so much more convenient.
Then came the Great War. It turned his mind – how could it not? – from architecture to other matters. He was engaged in noble causes: Hon. Local Secretary of the Central Committee of the National Egg Collection for the Wounded. It sounds bathetic, but it was seen as important – and besides, he kept chickens.
After the war, of course, war memorials – and in profusion. At the Second Cotswold Arts and Crafts exhibition held in Cheltenham Art Gallery:-
“Seventy-four drawings of reredoses, rood screens, altars, war memorial crosses, etc, which have been erected in different parts of the country, attest the architectural skill and taste of Mr J Coates Carter of Prestbury.”
All 74 have by no means been traced. There is an open-air pulpit at SS Paul and Stephen, Gloucester (1919), an imposing memorial cross at All Saints, Cheltenham (1919-20), Prestbury war memorial (1920), and a memorial, not to the war, but to the vicar of Prestbury, Henry Urling Smith (1919), a rood beam in the church. He also submitted designs for a war memorial in the north chapel of St Mary, Cheltenham (which did not happen), and a design for the Cheltenham war memorial. It was one of 19 submitted in competition, and it won. Coates Carter’s design was deemed too expensive, and that of someone else was built.
His main focus was increasingly his local church life. In March 1919 he is described as “Honorary Architect” to Prestbury church; in 1920, a sidesman; in 1923, churchwarden. He did more and more work in the church, almost obsessively: linen-fold panelling round the sedilia (1919), a war memorial tablet (1921), a screen in the south chapel, and an altar (1922), piscina (1922), pulpit (1923), and an unusual and striking ‘Sacrament house’ (1925) on the sanctuary window sill – perhaps indicating ever-deepening Anglo-Catholic devotion. There is certainly a feeling of intensity – and a tapering off, perhaps, of dedication to architecture.
Still he worked in Wales – most memorably at St Luke, Abercarn, Mon (1923-26), abandoned in 1980, and now an evocative and dangerous ruin, and St Philip, Newport, Mon (1924-5), a mission church for the staff of Lysaghts engineers. Also St Eloi, Llandeloy, Pembs (1924-6), his last church: a romantic reconstruction – more a re-imagining – of a medieval Welsh church which, when he arrived, was little more than a pile of stones in a field.
Coates Carter’s attention was being increasingly drawn to something more intimate and more immediate than churches – the designing, making and painting of reredoses: the painted or carved panels attached to the east wall of a church, immediately above the altar. These were increasingly in a singular, personal and highly idiosyncratic idiom, primitive in some ways, naïve – even. All but two are in Wales, and most in Pembrokeshire. Another mystery: why reredoses, and why so many in Pembrokeshire?
The dating is by no means clear. The circumstances of their commission, the timing of their design, the period of their making, and date of installation and unveiling are often unknown, and rarely clear. Few dated drawings survive. Pevsner gives dates for some, but not all. Those dates differ in several cases from the dates given by the Coates Carter scholar, Phil Thomas (which I have tended to follow). Any chronology must be treated with caution: it could even be argued they all come about in the same short time-scale.
Coates Carter had executed five reredoses while in partnership with Seddon, including a rhapsody of marble doves in flight at St Oudoceus, Llandogo, Monmouthshire (1888-9), and more conventional works at St Clement, Llansawel, Glamorgan (1889), St John, Purbrook, Hampshire (c. 1894); possibly at St Michael, Michaelston-y-Fedw, Mon (1894-7), and at All Saints, Adamstown, Cardiff (1899-1903), now flats. But none of these foreshadow what was to come after Coates Carter started working alone. Some of his first reredoses are themselves fairly conventional – either bas relief naturalistic narrative Biblical scenes, carved in wood, varnished but not painted; or they remind one of (or are derived from) the work of Oberammergau carvers, whose reputation for this kind of work was justifiably high.
The earliest are probably St Andrew (now Dewi Sant), Cardiff (1911), St Gabriel, Cricklewood, London (c.1912-1913) – a memorial to a much-loved priest killed in a railway accident in Sweden, St Mary, Nolton, Bridgend, Glamorgan (1919 or 1921), St John the Divine, Pembroke Dock (1919), St Paul, Stroud Road, Gloucester (1920) (no longer there), and St Thomas à Becket, Haverfordwest (1921), now in St Mary’s, Haverfordwest. However, there is little to excite in any of these. They are respectable, but somewhat mechanical, and correct rather than inspiring. (Another, at St John the Evangelist, Maindee, Newport (1921) was destroyed by fire in 1951.)
One which is indicative of an inventive, new, even experimental direction in Coates Carter’s reredoses is at St Andrew, Narberth (1916). The colourful panelled reredos in tempera was over-painted rather harshly in gloss paint in 1984. But, lurking behind the altar was found an exuberant and even playful surmounting corona (if that is the right word) – perhaps now too Anglo-Catholic even for a High Church. Something was stirring.
St Andrew, Narberth. Corona intended to surmount reredos
Coates Carter’s reredoses started out somewhat staid and even prim, but they gradually were to become more personal, more felt, more ‘Arts & Crafts’. Coates Carter was not only designing, but increasingly, it seems, painting, possibly applying gesso, and almost certainly making at least parts of the reredoses. The likelihood is that he carved the small figures of Christ that recur in his last reredos projects.
In 1921 Coates Carter drew up a proposal for a reredos – and much else – at St Peter, Johnston, Pembs. Alas, this thrilling ensemble was never executed, and only exists in drawings at the National Library of Wales. Now, for the first time, Christ appears not so much in glory, as a doll-like mannikin – an almost childishly naïve figure of a vulnerable human being. This image – touching and fragile – begins to emerge powerfully at four of his last church schemes.
At St Mary, Carew Cheriton (1923), Christ is not yet a mannikin, but a naturalistic figure. On either side kneels a sub-Burne-Jones angel with a flattened medieval profile, against a backdrop of stylised golden poppies: the rays of Christ’s radiance weave and pierce on either side.
St Mary, Carew Cheriton.
At St James the Great, Walwyns Castle (1925), Christ is emphatically a doll-like figure, robed in deep red, the rainbow now lined with gold, and the rays of light sharp and penetrating, like gnomons on a sundial. The adoring figures lack the sophisticated panache of Carew Cheriton – instead they are out of proportion, with small heads, thin arms and spindly feet, ill at ease and not a bit serene. Each angel has one wing which does not rest neatly folded, but juts up angularly towards Christ’s outreaching hands. In the top left-hand corner, a strange sun, with a jagged black aura, balanced in the other corner by a spectral moon. The banner carries a text from the Epistle of James 1: 17, in the King James version – “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness neither shadow of turning.”
St James the Great, Walwyns Castle
The third is at St Eloi, Llandeloy (1926), where, “according to Reverend Williams [vicar at the time], the reredos was made in Cheltenham, so it is possible that Coates Carter might have carried out the gesso-work or colouring himself – certainly the style of draughtsmanship is very like his own.” The chancel screen at this church was made by the firm of Pearce, Bunclark & Co – of Prestbury. Whether they did any part of the reredos, or indeed other of Coates Carter’s church work, is unclear – but they were certainly his near neighbours, at 1 Lynworth Terrace, Prestbury. Thus Coates Carter was working in far west Wales, but using Cheltenham craftsmen to do the work. He did not make life easy for himself. Which may, of course, have been the point.
At Llandeloy Christ is simplest of all, and the background, while including rainbow and stylised sun, and, as elsewhere, images of local churches, is also adorned with flowers, half natural and half stylised. The banner reads, from the Te Deum, “O Lord, in thee have I trusted. Let me never be confounded.”
St Eloi, Llandeloy (detail)
The most extraordinary of all this set of heavenly objects is perhaps the reredos at the passingly out-of-the-way Fisherman’s Chapel at Angle (1925 or 1926), right out on the south-westernmost tip of the county, a rural panorama with cattle, a man with a scythe, a golden ship, a boatman, a milkmaid – all rather badly drawn! Yet the banner proclaims with unabashed confidence: “I can do all things in Christ who strengtheneth me” (Letter to the Phillipians, 4: 13). It is Coates Carter asserting that even imperfect work, if meant and seriously intended, can be an act of worship.
The Fisherman’s Chapel, Angle
Why this intensity? Why this humility? Why this apparent revealing of his own imperfect skills? Like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, was the act of making as much the point as the finished object? Was Coates Carter meeting the Arts & Crafts ideal of artist and designer and maker all combined in one person – hands-on, engaged, intent? These reredoses – colourful, simple, awkward even – seem to mark a dedication to something more than architecture. Perhaps the interpretation is this: he was showing that, yes, he had found his God, and that, by his own flawed, stumbling, but heartfelt craftsmanship, God was worth finding and worshipping. These works dominate the small spaces they occupy, as a child’s drawing draws the parent’s proud eye to the fridge door. They seem oddly eloquent through their very artlessness.
We end with another Coates Carter puzzle. The very last reredos – (and in this case there is no doubt of date, since dated drawings survive) – is at St Mary, Herbrandston (1927), a doubly thankful village. All its men returned from both World Wars. Coates Carter reverts to the unpainted, conventional reredoses of a decade before – perhaps that is what was expected.
St Mary, Herbrandston
That apart, his 1920s reredoses reveal Coates Carter as one of Wales’s most committed, spiritual and craftsmanly artists. He was not a churner-out of good, solid churches like Seddon, nor a self-consciously contrary and provocative architect like Voysey, nor an extraverted, wilful artist like Eric Gill (who in the 1920s was producing engravings and sculptures in his own direct, stripped-down primitive style, but of a more shocking, worldly kind). No, he was an honest, and seen to be imperfect, maker of simple, frank, direct, even childish, works of devotional art, who, working first with, then perhaps supported and inspired by, the skilled church craftsmen of Cheltenham, made works to transcend the everyday into something sublime. In their often tiny, simple churches, they shine as beacons of faith.
- British Listed Buildings, listing for St John the Divine, Wainfelin, Pontypool.
- Phil Thomas, ‘John Coates Carter: Building a Sense of Place’, Buildings Conservation Directory, 17th edition, 2010: Special Report on Historic Churches, 34-39.
- The Wikipedia citation credits this statement to “Phil Thomas, ‘Building a Sense of Place’, Building Conservation” [sic]. However, the statement is not to be found in that article. Phil Thomas, with whom the author has discussed Coates Carter’s work extensively, is the leading authority on Coates Carter’s architectural career.
- Mordaunt Crook, William Burges and the High Victorian Dream (London, 1981), 73.
- Gloucestershire Echo, 29 March 1923.
- National Library of Wales: Coates Carter 18 143/9/7.
- Phil Thomas suggests its date is 1916, but stylistically this seems unlikely. I have preferred the date in Pevsner in this instance.
- Phil Thomas, personal communication, February 2017.
Coates Carter’s known extant reredoses (excluding ‘possible attributions’) after 1900
The dating followed in the article is (largely) that of Phil Thomas, The Works of John Coates Carter (1859-1927) – a Chronological List complete to June 2013 (unpublished). Somewhat different dates are given in Thomas Lloyd, Pembrokeshire (Yale: Buildings of Wales, 2004) and the other most recent ‘Pevsner’ Wales volumes.
To aid the enthusiastic reredos-spotter, this Appendix of extant Coates Carter reredoses has been extracted, compiled and adapted from Phil Thomas’s list by Alec Hamilton.
Destroyed reredoses and uncertain attributions are omitted.
Dates in the left-hand column are as in the Thomas list. Dates in the right-hand column are as given in the most recent ‘Pevsner’ county volumes. Where no date is given in ‘Pevsner’ specifically for the reredos, a “-” is inserted in place of a date.
1911 St Andrew (now Dewi Sant), St Andrew’s Crescent, Cardiff –
c.1912-1913 St Gabriel, Cricklewood, London c. 1912
1916 St Andrew, Narberth, Pembrokeshire 1927
?1916 St James the Great, Walwyn’s Castle, 1925
1919 St Mary, Merthyr Mawr Road, Nolton, Bridgend. 1921
1919 St John the Divine, Pembroke Dock 1919-20
1921 The Ascension, Portsmouth, Hampshire –
c.1921 St Thomas, Haverfordwest, (now in St Mary) 1920
1922 St Luke, Newport, Mon (now in St Mary, Chepstow) 1922
1923 St Mary, Carew Cheriton 1923
1924 SS Andrew and Teilo, Woodville Road, Cardiff 1924
1924-6 St Eloi, Llandeloy –
1925 St Anthony’s chapel (Fishermen’s Chapel), Angle 1926
1925 St Katherine, Milford Haven 1925
– St Andrew, Robeston West 1925
1927 St Mary, Herbrandston 1927
P. F. Anson, The Benedictines of Caldey (London, 1940).
P. F. Anson, Building up the Waste Places: The Revival of Monastic Life on Medieval Lines in the Post-Reformation Church of England (London, 1973).
R. Beacham, Prestbury: a Walk through Time (Prestbury Local History Society, 2015).
P. Thomas, ‘Invention, tradition and a sense of place – John Coates Carter and the church of St Eloi, Llandeloy’, Ancient Monuments Society Transactions, Vol XLV (2001), 29-44.
P. Thomas, ‘John Coates Carter: Building a Sense of Place’, Buildings Conservation Directory, (17th ed., London, 2010): Special Report on Historic Churches, 34-39.
P. Thomas, The Works of John Coates Carter (1859-1927) – a Chronological List complete to June 2013 (unpublished).