Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Carter, John (1748-1817)

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CARTER, JOHN (1748–1817), draughtsman and architect, the son of Benjamin Carter, a marble-carver established in Piccadilly,was born on 22 June 1748. At an early age he was sent to a boarding-school at Battersea, and afterwards to one in Kennington Lane, and at this period, according to one of his biographers, 'his genius began to unfold itself in practising musick on the English flute, and making attempts at drawing.' Carter had always a love for music, and mention is made of two operas named 'The White Rose' and 'The Cell of St. Oswald,' 'which he not only wrote [apparently for private theatricals], but set to musick, and painted the scenery adapted to them,' exhibiting them 'upon a small stage.' Leaving school when only about twelve, he went home to his father, 'under whose roof he prosecuted the art of design, making working drawings for the men.' About 1764 (his father having died), Carter was taken into the office of a Mr. Joseph Dixon, surveyor and mason, with whom he remained for some years. In 1774 he was employed to execute drawings for the 'Builder's Magazine,' 'periodical edited by Newbery of St. Paul's Churchyard, and for this he continuedto draw until 1786. In one of its numbers he published a design for a sessions house, which was afterwards copied by some unscrupulous person, who sent it in as his own original design, on the occasion of a competition for the building of a sessions house on Clerkenwell Green. This copied drawing was successful, and the building was erected in accordance with it, while a new design which Carter himself sent in for the competition was rejected by the judges.

In 1780, on the recommendation of the Rev. Dr. Lort, Carter was employed by the Society of Antiquaries to do some drawing and etching. He was elected a fellow of the society in March 1795, and worked much for it as its draughtsman. In 1780 he had drawn for Richard Gough, afterwards his great patron, the west front of Croyland Abbey Church, and many other subjects, which were inserted in Gough's 'Sepulchral Monuments' and in his other works. Gough, in the preface to his 'History of Croyland Abbey' (1783), and in the preface to his 'Sepulchral Monuments' (1786), speaks highly of Carter's abilities. In 1781, and later. Carter also met with other patrons and friends, among whom were John Soane, the architect, the Rev. Dr. John Milner, Sir Henry Charles Englefield, William Bray, F.S.A., Sir Richard Colt Hoare, the Earl of Exeter, and Horace Walpole. His first important published work was his 'Specimens of Ancient Sculpture and Painting.' published in parts (folio size) from 1780 till 1794. The engraved title-page of vol. i. is 'Specimens of the Antient Sculpture and Painting now remaining in this Kingdom, from the earliest period to the reign of Henry ye VIII, consisting of Statues, Bassorelievos ... Paintings on Glass and on Walls ... A description of each subject, some of which by Gentlemen of Leterary [sic] abilities, and well versed in the Antiquities of this kingdom whose names are prefixed to their essays. . . . The Drawings made from the original Subjects, and engrav’d by John Carter, Nov. 1st, 1780.’ The dedication of this volume is to Horace Walpole, the patron of the book, and is dated November 1786. Vol. ii. is dedicated to the Earl of Exeter, and its title-page is dated 1787; a postscript to the whole work is dated ‘London, May 1794’ (a new edition, with index, appeared in 1838, 2 vol. in one, folio). In his introduction to the ‘Specimens’ Carter states that, ‘having explored at different times various parts of England for the purpose of taking sketches and drawing of the remains of ancient sculpture and painting, his aim is to perpetuate such as he has been so fortunate as to meet with by engraving them.’ While the ‘Specimens’ was in progress, Carter also published ‘Views of Ancient Buildings in England’ (drawn and engraved by himself), 6 vols. London, 1786–93, 16mo (republished as ‘Specimens of Gothic Architecture, and Ancient Buildings In England, comprised in 120 views’, 4 vols. London, 1824, 16mo). In 1785 he began another extensive work, ‘The Ancient Architecture of England’ (1795–1814, folio). Part i. deals with ‘The Orders of Architecture during the British, Roman, Saxon, and and Norman aeras;’ its engraved title-page is dated London, 1795, and its dedication (to H.R.H. the Duke of York) 1806. Part ii., ‘The Orders of Architecture during the reigns of Henry III, Edward III, Richard II, Henry VI, Henry VII and Henry VIII,’ was not completed. Its title-page is dated 1807, but the engravings bear dates from 1807 to 1814. A new and enlarged edition of this work was published in 1845 (two parts, folio) by John Britton, who has remarked that ‘Carter was the first to point out to the public the right way of delineating the component and detached parts of the old buildings of England. His national work on Ancient Architecture occupied him more than twenty years.’ The arrangement of the architectural specimens chronologically was also an important feature in Carter’s book, and prepared the way for subsequent writers on the sequence of styles. Between 1795 and 1813 Carter was further engaged in preparing ‘plans, elevations, sections, and specimens of the architecture’ of various ecclesiastical buildings, which were published at intervals by the Society of Antiquaries, viz., St. Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster, 1795 etc.; Exeter Cathedral, 1797, &c.; the abbey church of Bath, 1798; Durham Cathedral, 1801; Gloucester Cathedral, 1809; St. Albans Abbey, 1813. One other work of Carter’s, of considerable importance remains to be noticed, namely, the series of papers published in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ from 1798 to 1817, with the odd title of ‘Pursuits of Architectural Innovation.’ These papers partly consist of a series of attacks upon his contemporaries, who had been, or were likely to be, concerned in the ‘restoration’ or destruction of various ancient buildings and monuments. They were simply signed ‘An Architect,’ but Carter’s authorship could not well be concealed. In the first article of the series (Gent. Mag. vol. lxviii. pt. ii. 1798, pp. 764–5) he declares that it is necessary that the attention of antiquaries should be directed to ‘those remains of our country’s ancient splendour which may, from time to time, give way to the iron hand of architectural innovation.’ It has been remarked by Pugin that Carter’s ‘enthusiastic zeal’ was ‘undoubtedly effectual in checking the mutilation of ancient monuments.’

Carter practised little as an architect; a list of some minor works which were carried out from his designs may be found in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ for 1817 (pt, ii, p. 365; cf. Gent. Mag. 1818, vol. lxxxvii. pt. i, pp. 273–6). Towards the autumn of 1816 his health began to decline. In the spring of the following year dropsy made its appearance, and he died in Upper Eaton Street, Pimlico, on 8 Sept. 1817, aged 69. He was buried at Hampstead, an inscribed stone to his memory being placed on the south side of the church. His collection of drawings, antiquities, &c., was sold by auction at Sotheby’s on 23–5 Feb. 1818, and produced the sum of 1,527l., 3s. 6d. It included a series of sketches ‘relating to the antiquities of England and South Wales, from the year 1764 to 1816, in 26 volumes,’ the outcome of his summer excursions during more than fifty years.

Carter was a bachelor, and is described as being ‘reserved’ in manner.and ‘frugal, even to parsimony.’ He was rather irascible in temper, and had the reputation of being a quarrelsome man. He was dogmatic, and obstinate in maintaining his own antiquarian theories—habits of mind partly due perhaps to his very imperfect education. He knew no language but his own, and this want of knowledge also much interfered with his archaeological inquiries, though he had the advantage of being assisted in his published works by men more learned than himself, such as Richard Gough and Dr. John Milner. It is also recorded of him, however, that ‘as a companion he was blameless’ and ‘pleasing,’ and that ‘his integrity was incorruptible.’ The statements that Carter was an Irishman and of the Roman catholic religion (Redgrave, Dict.; Mathias, Pursuits of Literature (7th ed.), Dial. iv. 1. 297 and note) seem to be erroneous (See Gent. Mag., 1818, vol. lxxxviii. pt. i. pp. 273-6). It has also been erroneously stated that there is a memoir of him by the Rev. W. J. Dampier. This refers to John Carter (1815-1850) [q. v.]

[Obituary notices in Gent. Mag. for 1817 (pt. ii.), pp. 368-8, and an additional memoir, chiefly extracted from the New Monthly Mag., in Gent. Mag. for 1818, vol. lxxxviii. (pt. i.) pp. 273-6. The Gent. Mag. contains numerous other references to Carter, for which see its General Index (1787-1818), vol. iii., s.v. 'Carter' and 'Architectural Innovation;' Nichols's illustrations of Lit. Hist, (several ref. in index to vol. viii.) and his Literary Anecdotes (reff. in the Indices); Redgrave's Dict, of Artists. For the bibliography compare Lowndes's Bibliog. Manual; Allibone's Dict. Eng. Lit.; Univ. Cat. of Books on Art (South Kensington Mus.), and the Brit. Mus. Catalogue.]

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