John Coates-Carter: A Little Known Arts and Crafts Architect

John Coates-Carter is a somewhat obscure English church architect whose work should be better known.   Born in Norwich in 1859. he was initially articled to a local architect in the city, before working in the offices of the Gothic Revivalist J. P. Seddon (1827-1906).  In his early years in Seddon's office, he worked alongside Charles Voysey (1857-1941), who would become one of the prominent exponents of the Arts and Crafts style.  While Voysey quickly moved off and established his own studio and reputation, Coates-Carter remained in Seddon's practice.  By 1885 he had worked his way up to become Seddon's partner in a brand new venture, establishing an office in the rapidly expanding city of Cardiff.  There would be plenty of work and he would run that Cardiff office for the next thirty one years, until he retired to Cheltenham in 1916.  After retirement and free of the constraints of running a large practice, he would continue to work on small, hand-picked schemes, into which he poured all his creative energy and passion, producing work that was just as lively and inventive as the work of his more famous friend Voysey. 

The vast majority of Coates-Carter's output is to be found in south Wales, often in obscure and out-of-the-way churches in Glamorganshire and Pembrokeshire.  Had he been in London and the Home Counties his work would certainly be better known.  In this post I want to share with you a couple of examples of work by John Coates-Carter, in both cases they date from the very end of his life's work and are a mature expression of his aesthetic values.

The charnel house at Angle, the steps lead up to the Sailor's Chapel. 

The simple, whitewashed interior of the chapel is relieved by the bright reredos behind the altar.  
The first work I want to share with you is this reredos.  The altarpiece is in a small freestanding building in the churchyard at Angle in southern Pembrokeshire, close to the mouth of Milford Haven.  The building itself is a tiny fifteenth century charnel house and above the vaulted charnel chamber, is a barrel-vaulted chapel.  This structure has been known for time immemorial as the 'Sailor's Chapel' and it is believed to have been built in 1447 by Edward de Shirbun a local landowner. As well as being a charnel chapel where masses for the dead were said, it was also used to receive of the bodies of those who had drowned along the treacherous Pembrokeshire coastline.  The chapel is very simply furnished and is completely whitewashed within, the starkness of the interior only enlivened by Coates-Carter's colourful reredos and the window behind, set above a simple stone altar.   The reredos was installed and the chapel refurbished in 1926 in memory of the Mirehouse family.

This colourful altarpiece, set in a Gothic frame with Bodleyesque decoration, is very much in the Arts and Crafts idiom and may well have been painted by Coates-Carter himself. At the centre of the panel is a Christus Rex, popping out in high relief and forming the main focal point of the panel.  This image of the triumphant Christ on the cross, seems somewhat disassociated from the rest of the altarpiece which is painted in egg tempera, with areas of gilt gesso in low relief.

The backdrop to the cross, is a charming scene of local life in Angle in the 1920's, painted in a fluid and somewhat free style. In the foreground is a meadow, the meadow that still exists a few yards from the building, below Angle churchyard.  To the left a kneeling man cuts wild flowers from the meadow, while a child, holding a doll, stands over him.  Further along are two more children, one plays with a flowering branch, while another holds a net, perhaps to catch butterflies or crabs in the adjoining creek.

Further along we sheep grazing on the flowering meadow, and a man in blue hat with a striking red necktie holding a scythe.

Around the cross of Christ are cattle and beside them a woman in a red headscarf stands with a milk pail.  Lastly three fishermen push their small boat off the beach and into Angle bay, ready to set out into nearby Milford Haven.

To the top left of the reredos, an angel hovers over the scene, it acts to frames the wider scene, but it's gaze is fixed firmly on the image of Christ on the cross.  Behind the angel is Angle church standing above the meadow, with the little charnel chapel standing to the left of it.  Behind is the blue water of Milford Haven and the sun in splendour in a dark blue sky.

On the other side is a second angel and behind Milford Haven again, and what appears to be a castle and a sailing ship.  The castle represents the island of Thorne with it's fort built in the 1850s, just off the coast of Angle.  The ship is most probably a Scottish ship called 'Loch Shield' that was wrecked on the island in a storm in 1894 losing a large cargo of whisky. This event was one that was still firmly imprinted in the memory of Angle folk, the lifeboatmen of Angle struggled against great odds to rescue all thirty seven crew members and the wreck of the ship still remained in the 1920s a visible reminder of this terrible event.

Under this scene and beneath the cross of Christ is the inscription from Phillippians 4: 'I can do all things in Christ who strengtheneth me'.  Inspiring words for those who would have visited this little chapel and prayed for the souls of those in peril on the sea. 

Llandeloy church from the south-west. 
The second work by Coates-Carter I would share with you is an example of his church restoration work.  The little church of St Teilo or St Eloi in Llandeloy, is in Dewisland in Pembrokeshire, seven miles east of the cathedral city of St David's.  It had long been disused and by the 1840s had fallen into complete ruin.  Before the First World War, the vicar had begun to raise money for it's restoration, but the war put paid to that. The scheme was revived once again in 1925 and Coates-Carter was appointed as architect for the work.  

What Coates-Carter created at Llandeloy on the footprint of the medieval church here was an honest building without pretension, furnished very simply with Arts and Crafts fittings.   In contrast to the whitewashed interior of the chapel at Angle, in this place Coates-Carter has left the interior of the building unplastered, the honesty of the stonework and the structure, left bare for all to see.  Into this he introduced pared-down timber furnishings made by Pearce, Bunclark and Co of Cheltenham. Coates-Carter's house was just around the corner from their workshop and he could oversee directly the construction of these elements, which were prefabricated and then brought to Llandeloy.  The rood screen and loft has simple Gothic decoration that references the extraordinary medieval screens and lofts that survive in many remote churches in the Welsh marches. The timber of the screen and the simple pews and pulpit, were left unpainted and unfinished.       

This church of rough stone and unadorned woodwork, is a simple casket that is designed to contain a jewel - that jewel is the high altar in the chancel beyond.  Amid this veritable sea of rough stone and unpainted timber, the eye is drawn east through the rood screen, to the rich colouring of the high altar and it's reredos.    

This reredos is similar in many respects to the one Coates-Carter designed at Angle, but somewhat rougher in execution and it is likely that he painted it himself.  Here it forms part of a stone altar with iron brackets for riddels extending out from two timber posts. 

As in Angle the centre of the panel is dominated by a Christus Rex, but unlike that reredos here the central image of Christ is directly connected to the background through a series of rays that emanate from the cross.  Two gilded angels in low relief kneel on either side of the cross and behind them are scrolls with a text from the Te Deum: 'O Lord in thee have I trusted, let me never be confounded'. 

Behind the angels is a colourful meadow, with stylised roses and cornflowers raised in relief in gesso against a Turquoise ground.  This stylised flora is close in style to the wallpaper and textile patterns designed by his former colleague Voysey.

Above the meadow rise grass green hills and a bright azure sky. To the left against the skyline is the unmistakable silhouette of St David's Cathedral and beside it the diocesan arms and above a sun in splendour.  This image of the cathedral is linked to the other side of the panel by a vivid rainbow.

At the end of the rainbow is an image of another church, probably St Mary's in Pembroke, set under the moon and with a ship in full sail beside it. 

In 1926 as this reredos and the whole church was nearing completion, Coates-Carter's own life was also drawing to a close.  This church would be his final work and here at the end of his life, as death drew ever closer, Coates-Carter uses this building, for which he didn't charge a fee, to explore his own faith and express it.  Here he creates a building of contrasts, a pared-down and dark aesthetic, that is a foil for a light, colourful and lively reredos, that draws the eye and gives prominence to the altar.  Here he creates for us, a glimpse of the reality and glory heaven, through the darkness and materiality of the world.  It is a very moving space indeed and this whole building, Coates-Carter's swansong, seems to cry out: 'O Lord in thee have I trusted, let me never be confounded'.

Further reading

T. Lloyd, J. Orbach and R. Schourfield, The Buildings of Wales: Pembrokeshire (New Haven and London, 2004), pp. 123, 248-249.

P. Thomas 'John Coates-Carter, Building a Sense of Place'.

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