John Coates Carter

Building a Sense of Place

Phil Thomas


  The nave at SS Julius and Aaron with modern altar in the foreground
  Rough textured walls and roof timbers provide a startling foil for the plain round concrete columns of the nave at SS Julius and Aaron, Newport (1923-27). The altar is modern. (Photo Jonathan Taylor)

John Coates Carter (1859-1927) was the most distinguished architect working within the Arts and Crafts tradition to base his practice in south Wales. Although his work was largely ecclesiastical, he designed a number of public buildings, many houses, submitted entries to national and international competitions, and created one of the largest and least-known ensembles of Arts and Crafts-influenced buildings in the British Isles, the monastery and associated domestic and community buildings on Caldey Island. In the context of recent Welsh political resurgence and a widening interest in those early-20th century architects whose work does not pre-figure Modernism, his considerable output is long overdue for serious examination and re-assessment.

Coates Carter’s works have tended to puzzle critics, who regarded them as being too restlessly wayward, too eccentric, or too distant from the mainstream of British architecture to be easily categorised. But in his best buildings he achieves a personal mixture of massive simplicity and lyrical charm, and he was one of the few British architects active around 1900 whose work is clearly influenced by contemporary developments in America and Europe where he is known to have travelled. In buildings like All Saints’ Hall, Penarth (1906), his various schemes for Caldey Abbey (1907-1913), and many designs for private houses in south Wales, including the Red House, Penarth, built for himself in 1901, he comes close to a kind of Arts and Crafts expressionism with a distinctly international slant. This is unusual at a time when influence was generally regarded as flowing in the opposite direction and British architecture, design and theory were more highly regarded and fashionable abroad than at any time before or since.

In his works after 1900, particularly in the Welsh churches of his last decade, Coates Carter was increasingly concerned to discover how some sense of Welshness might be expressed in the language of religious architecture. He shared this urge with his closest north Wales equivalent, Herbert Luck North (1871-1941). Curiously, both men were outsiders; both born in England and both middle-class, high-Anglican architects working in the prevailing nonconformist working-class culture of Wales, and they approached the task in very different ways. While North took his cue directly from the landscape and indigenous materials of Snowdonia, coloured by his interest in the work of William Lethaby and symbolism, Coates Carter seems to have been prompted by a more complex and pragmatic mixture of motives.

John Coates Carter was born and raised in Norwich and articled to the local architect JB Pearce, whose most impressive work, the Town Hall at Great Yarmouth (1878-82), was designed while Coates Carter was training in the office. He became pupil and then assistant to London-based JP Seddon (1827-1906), who he may have met when Seddon was also in Yarmouth around 1880 building his new church of St James. Working with the Cardiff based Welsh architect John Prichard (1817-1886), Seddon and Prichard had brought a new sophistication and intelligence to mid-19th century Gothic architecture in Wales, and their work was widely admired by their contemporaries.

  Elements of Coates Carter's Arts & Crafts monastery and community buildings at Caldey Island  
  Caldey Island, showing part of the monastery, St Martin’s tower and the Post Office (mainly 1909-11) – several chimney stacks have been removed. (All photos by the author unless otherwise stated)  

In 1885 Coates Carter was taken into a partnership with Seddon that lasted until 1904. He seems to have controlled the firm’s Cardiff office and to have been largely responsible for its work in Wales. In the series of new churches which he designed between the 1880s and the first world war he tried to establish an appropriate form for urban church building in south Wales, gradually refining and developing his creative language in response to the vernacular architecture of the region, and the brand of high-Anglicanism which he and his clients favoured.

All of his early churches are in a tough version of ‘modern Gothic’, partly inherited from Seddon who he revered, and strongly influenced by aspects of the work of GF Bodley. When Bodley and Garner’s church of St German, Roath, was rising in the early 1880s in an unpretentious inner-city area of Cardiff, it must have seemed startlingly radical and fresh to a young and imaginative local church architect, and Coates Carter was clearly intrigued by it. Ignoring the sumptuous late-14th century surface of St German’s, he eagerly adapted a number of Bodley’s formal ideas and used them immediately in his first independently designed church, St Catherine, Melincryddan, Neath (1888-91). Here are the generously lofty proportions, the continuous nave and chancel without clerestory, wide aisles with repetitive fenestration, the sparing use of extruded buttresses, emphasis on sculptural external mass, and wide four-plane roof, all imaginatively re-interpreted from St German’s. St Catherine’s is executed in a palette of local materials with eccentrically patterned dressings, a repertory which Coates Carter would continue to use for his major urban church buildings. Unusually, the arcades are of timber, but they are carefully detailed to echo the trefoil-section wagon roof which runs from end to end inside.

The finest of Coates Carter’s surviving early churches, St Paul, Grangetown, Cardiff (1888-90, the chancel completed later), develops these ideas further. Although the intended tower was never built, the exterior impresses through a combination of height, austere massing, strong detailing and subtleties like the delicate four-plane profile of the gables on the rhythmically cross-gabled aisles and on the stone spires of the turrets framing the bold west front. The tall interior is calm and coherent, unified by the splendid trefoil-section roof of nave and chancel, and by the insistent rhythm of tall, single-mullioned windows which achieve resolution in the five-light east window. St Paul’s is also an early and unexpected demonstration of Coates Carter’s interest in concrete. Although the bulk of the walling is of south Wales sandstone, and the elaborate dressings are of Penkridge stone, some substantial elements (including the arcades) are of concrete cast in moulds, using sandstone chippings and crushed brick as aggregate. The result is lovely, and has aged beautifully.

  Exterior of St Paul, Grangetown with twin turrets framing the west front St Paul, Grangetown: nave arcade with clusters of slender columns The exterior of All Saints, Adamsdown which incoporates a beautiful patchwork of stone and brick and a slender bellcote structure embedded like a blade in the church's west west elevation
  St Paul, Grangetown, Cardiff (1888-90), above left, from the south-west, and above centre, the nave arcade: the pale pink areas visible in the exterior and the slender columns of the arcade are built of cast concrete blocks containing crushed sandstone and brick as aggregate. (Photo, above centre: Jonathan Taylor) Above right, All Saints, Adamsdown, Cardiff (1899-1903), its west elevation dramatically sliced by the blade-like bellcote

The most restlessly inventive of all his urban churches was also one of the smallest; the former All Saints, Adamsdown, Cardiff (1899-1903), in secular use for many years. On a long, narrow site, Coates Carter has ingeniously fitted church, schoolroom and ancillary accommodation on two levels. The building is clothed in a heady patchwork of stones drawn from the south Wales valleys’ urban vernacular: Pennant sandstone, Bath stone, more brick-laced pink concrete, and bright ribbons and splashes of local Radyr breccia. At the west end, a slab-like vertical blade – part bellcote, part spire – rises on the long axis of the building, further emphasising its length and slicing the west front dramatically in half.

In about 1916, Coates Carter closed his office in Cardiff and retired to Prestbury, near Cheltenham. He became churchwarden at his local church, St Mary’s, where he is memorialised. After the first world war, work began to trickle back in from Wales and he entered an architectural Indian summer. Perhaps living at a distance lent a kind of enchantment, or at least detachment, for the churches of his last decade are simpler and more timeless. They are pure, pared-down buildings, stripped of historicist details, intended as the setting for coloured, gilded furnishings and for the glamour of late-medieval pre-Reformation worship.

These late works, designed after the formal disestablishment of the Welsh church in 1920, sound a trumpet-blast on behalf of what Coates Carter and his co-religionists probably saw as the ‘old religion’ of Wales, deeply rooted long before up-start, nonconformist Protestantism scattered the land with chapels and came to dominate the popular culture. They are the fruits of Welsh Anglicanism re-born and newly energetic, set free by disestablishment from any direct connexion with politics and the state. They reach back to ally themselves with the archaic, heroic age of the national myth and its literature, before the arrival of narrow and judgmental Calvinism. They look backward to look forward; paradoxically using high-Anglicanism as a vehicle for demonstrating Welsh architectural identity. In his last complete church, at Llandeloy in Pembrokeshire, a county then rich in vernacular building traditions, Coates Carter literally re-invents the past to serve the future in a creative way.

The towering facade of the derelict church of St Luke, Abercarn Top-stage of St Luke's tower with louvred window
St Luke, Abercarn (1923-26) has been long-abandoned on its precipitous site in the south Wales valleys: (top right) the top stage of the tall tower with typical south Wales vernacular details; (below) the abandoned reinforced concrete interior in the 1980s, looking south-east.

In the last four years of his life Coates Carter conceived a handful of exceptional churches employing local materials and identifiably Welsh vernacular motifs. Three of these began building before his death and they survive in varying degrees of completion or dereliction and under varying degrees of threat. One is in suburban Newport, another on a magnificently dramatic site above an industrial community in the south Wales valleys, and the third is in rural Pembrokeshire. Although they are dissimilar in form and scale, each manages to achieve a sense of being rooted in the varying physical, emotional and political landscape of Welshness.

SS Julius and Aaron, Newport, Gwent, is a glorious fragment. Between 1910 and 1917 Coates Carter designed at least three increasingly elaborate schemes for the site, but the peacetime rise in building costs made them unachievable. Work finally started on the fourth, and simplest, in 1923. Less than half of the church had been built when the architect died and building work ceased in 1927.

  St Luke's derelict interior

Missing both its lady chapel and vestries, and with a hugely truncated nave, the church is difficult to comprehend from outside, notwithstanding the vast sweep of its pantiled roof and its ruggedly impressive sandstone walls, punched-through with blunt four-centred openings. The west front, intended to be temporary, is an elemental statement of favourite Coates Carter themes: a four-plane roof profile, dramatically paired windows, buttresses only where they are essential. Even in its unfinished state and without its intended painted furnishings, the inside (see title illustration) is impressive and makes one long for more. It is an aisled holy barn, in which tall concrete columns carry wide brick arches supporting superb open timber roofs; a sheltering aerial forest of bold tie beams and rippling wind-braces.

A visit to the second of these churches, St Luke, Abercarn, is today a melancholy and affecting experience. Built between 1923 and 1926 of only two materials, beautifully dressed sandstone and reinforced concrete, its magnificent integrity survives even after 30 years of abandonment to the vandals and the comprehensive destruction of everything that could be wrecked, smashed or burned. The steeply sloping site is ravishing, and Coates Carter makes the most of it. A tall, slender tower, of impeccable south Wales provenance, is set far up the slope. The staggering west front, its paired high windows creating an unconventional duality, rises like a cliff above a dramatic formal arrangement of steps.

Inside the cave-like entrance, under an archway worthy of the American architect HH Richardson (1838-1886), ingeniously contrived concrete stairs continue the ascent, past a substantial hall and concrete-vaulted chapel, to emerge into a forest of concrete arcades as dense as a Welsh oak wood. Externally, its austere, squared-off forms, perfectly calculated texture and understated references to local archetypes come as close to Richardson’s ideal of ‘quiet and massive’ architecture as anything in these islands.

  SS Julius and Aaron exterior
  SS Julius and Aaron, Newport (1923-27) from the south-west: astonishingly powerful for a British church of the 1920s

At Abercarn, the use of local vernacular elements combined with an interest in the possibilities of new building technology – albeit in the service of traditional forms – suggest an art which faces in two directions at once. This duality of ideas is something Coates Carter shares with many architects in the resurgent nations of central Europe, and is characteristic of the moment: nationalist and progressive ideas interacting.

St Eloi, Llandeloy (1925-1926), for which Coates Carter refused to take a fee, is his swansong. It is his humble and loving evocation of a small medieval Welsh church, re-invented from a few long-abandoned medieval ruins on an ancient site. From the outside it crouches low against wind and weather, with walls of roughly pointed local rubble under a long slate roof, and a handful of small windows. Entering by the only door, one is suddenly remote and withdrawn from the world, and the interior has something of the intense, sheltering stillness and mystery of a cave or rock-cut shrine. It is Coates Carter’s most complete surviving interior, and is a beautiful performance.

Atmosphere is generated by the conjunction of a few well-chosen elements on a tiny scale: the textures of exposed stone and slate, restricted colours, extreme simplicity of detail, and the careful management of light. The floor climbs steeply along a powerful sacramental axis from the surviving medieval font, through a very narrow chancel opening, to the altar with its charmingly naive reredos, probably painted by the architect himself. Overhead, the roof is a dense mesh of joinery, and in front of the rough medieval screen wall the intricate rood loft, screen and pulpit form a wall of bright timber.

Llandeloy’s screen and loft are an affectionate homage to those surviving late-medieval examples that are most strongly Welsh in character. True to the spirit of their models, they are dignified and solid, yet lightened with small freedoms and quick with the joy of controlled improvisation, but where the ancient screens are rich with carving, Coates Carter has made a typically Arts and Crafts virtue of plainness. They are the last incandescence of a magnificent Welsh tradition, and are the finest 20th century furnishings of their kind in Wales.

  The exterior and graveyard of St Eloi, Llandeloy: a loving re-invention of the Welsh medieval church The interior of St Eloi: 'intense, sheltering stillness'
  St Eloi, Llandeloy (1924-26) from the south-east and (above right) the interior looking east, showing the rood loft and screen

Today, Coates Carter’s legacy hangs by a thread, and Wales cannot afford to squander this inheritance. Grangetown is marked for closure, and in the bizarre position of continuing in use as a parish church while being marketed for sale. Adamsdown has been secularised and poorly altered, Abercarn is fast becoming a magnificent ruin, Newport was never more than a fragment, and others are under threat. Llandeloy at least is safe; lovingly rescued by the ever-blessèd Friends of Friendless Churches.

The significant Arts and Crafts-influenced church buildings in Wales can be catalogued in a brief paragraph. Of these, only the churches by John Coates Carter and Herbert North were designed by architects based in the principality who strove, albeit in different ways, to discover how some sense of Welshness – of belonging – might be expressed honestly in the architectural language of their times.




Historic Churches, 2010


PHIL THOMAS is church buildings officer and DAC secretary to the diocese of York, and a trustee of several conservation organisations. He has spent many years studying Welsh architecture, and is an honorary life member of the Royal Society of Architects in Wales.

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