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Architect John Carr and our stately Stable Block
By Curator Blogger // Thu 12th October 2023
curator, john carr, stable block
To celebrate the tricentenary of his birth, our Curators have been looking at the architect John Carr of York, and his work here at Castle Howard, our stately Stable Block!
Figure 1: Portrait of John Carr by Sir William Beechey, c.1790. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

When discussing eighteenth-century architects, you might mention William Kent or Robert Adam, but John Carr is not necessarily a name that trips off the tongue. Yet, Carr [1723-1804] was a prolific practitioner in the second half of that century, and his buildings can be found from Scotland to Portugal; though there is a particular preponderance around the northern powerhouses that populate his home country of Yorkshire. Such was Carr’s contemporary popularity that the fifth edition of Vitruvius Britannicus (1771) contains fifteen pages of his buildings; Adam had only nine. So why is his name not so well known? Carr was a practical man who designed practical buildings, more often tasked with the stables than the mansion itself - including those here at Castle Howard - which are commonly overlooked by those with eyes on the main prize.

The need to build Stables was consistent across the construction of Castle Howard. The medieval castle of Henderskelfe, which stood near the site of today’s house, had Stables forming a forecourt to its western elevation. But such was the gusto grande of Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle, that when he came to consider rebuilding Henderskelfe Castle after a fire in 1693, he and his architects Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawkmsoor chose to retain none of the earlier fabric. In 1699, a phoenix arose in the form of a modern mansion, with plans published in Vitruvius Britannicus (1715) showing the full extent of the intended building - including the West Wing and Base Courts containing the Chapel and Stables respectively. However, the best laid plans have a tendency to go awry, and though building progressed from east to west, it came to a halt in 1715 before the West Wing and Base Courts had been built.

Figure 2: Aerial View of Castle Howard, as seen in Vitruvius Britannicus nut not as completed, 1715.
This was no simple setback of style. A country house of the eighteenth century could not function without Stables, and whilst we often look at Stable Blocks in terms of their aesthetic value, they also had important practical functions and constituted part of the wider economy of the landed estate. It is important to remember that in the eighteenth century the horse was the single and fastest means of transportation, communication, and production. The building of a Stable Block was often an aesthetic improvement in tandem with agricultural improvements, with the energies and resources expended upon them at the whim and wealth of the landed owners.  Within this context, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that in 1744, with the West Wing unbuilt, the old Stables of Henderskelfe Castle remained in use. They, along with another brace of buildings, are captured on an estate map where one can clearly see that they are remnants and not part of the completed whole.  
Figure 3: A 1744 Castle Howard Estate Map, with the outline of the house and ‘Stables and Grainery' of Henderskelfe Castle adjacent.

It fell to Henry Howard, 4th Earl of Carlisle, to complete his father’s unfinished business, which notably included the construction of the west wing in 1753 to the designs of Sir Thomas Robinson. Robinson shaved Vanbrugh’s planned Stable Courts from the face of the West Wing to create a grand western front of over 200ft, and resultantly had to plan a detached Stable Block further to the west. However, the Earl’s cash crisis (in short, a lack of it) and his death in 1758 ensured that these Stables would remain unbuilt.  

By 1770, during the tenure of Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle, it was found that the old Stables were ‘quite tumbling down’, and something had to be done. This was finally a catalyst for construction. In August of that year, Sir William Chambers was waiting upon the Earl to discuss the Stables; in September he was at Castle Howard ‘to settle everything’; and early in 1771 his designs were dispatched from London. However, due to the late 4th Earl's exuberance, during this period the estate was administered by Trustees who oversaw its management and attempted to limit expenditure. Chamber’s designs alone cost £112 – close to £10,000 in today’s terms. Therefore, by May 1771, the 5th Earl noted that he ‘made Mr Carr give me a plan for the Stables of a very different kind from that in point of expense’. Carr was evidently a pragmatic appointment, being a local architect of repute who could erect neat and perfectly formed buildings, as he had done at Wentworth Woodhouse, Harewood House, and Newby Hall. His fee of £50 per annum can be seen in the Estate Ledgers of 1781-84, the three years taken to construct the Stable Block.

Figure 4: The north and west elevations of Carr's Stable Block, drawn by J. S. Miller, 1942.

Carr’s Stable Block at Castle Howard was sited between the Obelisk and the house itself rather than in the immediate vicinity of the latter. Housing upwards of forty horses and five carriages, along with the requisite Grooms, the building comprises of four separate ranges - one-and-a-half stories tall to the north and south and single storey to the east and west - linked at their corners by low, flat-roofed units, forming a quadrangle. The north facade faces the drive and is accordingly the most decorative of the four, the central three bays forming a triumphal archway, delineated by four massive columns of the Tuscan Order under an entablature and a balustrade topped with urns and two dogs. For their construction, a sum in the neighbourhood of £3000 was paid to Robert and Ralph Campleman, the masons tasked with the project.

This triumphal arch, derived from classical examples such as the Arch of Constantine in Rome, was Carr's contribution to the panoply of features that form the classical playground around Castle Howard. The dogs atop it were also of Roman derivation, being copies of The Dog of Alcibiades, a sculpture of a hound dating from the 2nd Century AD. These dogs formerly sat atop the Exclamation Gates, a pair of gate piers to the southern extremity of the Castle Howard estate, but were relocated to the Stables during construction. There are numerous possible reasons for their proverbial ‘walkies’, be that; the patron’s personal preference; a desire to avoid the expense of carving further figures or ornaments; or perhaps to denote that the Stables were the centre of the Earl’s hunting pursuits. We know that the Stable Block was completed in 1784, for Francis Gregg, an Agent to the Earl wrote to his employer on 22nd October of that year stating, ‘I take the liberty of informing your Lordship the Stables are completed’.

Figure 5: Children of the 9th Earl and Countess of Carlisle outside the Stable Block, c.1880s.
The Stable Block has never stood still since. Various adaptations were made during the course of their lifetime, but never more so since the dependency upon horses was no more. Indeed by the 1940s, the Stable Block was redundant and used as a potato store. George Howard decided to capitalise upon the building in the 1960s and, having dismissed a plan by artist Felix Kelly turn a section of the complex into a theatre, established the Castle Howard Costume Galleries within the building, which remained there until the 1990s. Today the Stable Block houses our Ticket Office, Gift and Farm Shops, and Courtyard Café.  Thus, whilst its architectural treatment leads it to be considered as simply one of the numerous buildings in the Castle Howard landscape, the Stable Block was, and is, not a ‘folly’ and has a practical purpose at the heart of the economy of the estate.