Saturday, 13 August 2011

Discovering the works of a Lichfield architect

The west front of Lichfield Cathedral was restored by Joseph Potter and the great west doors inspired Pugin’s design for the doors of Saint Chad’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

One of the interesting Church architects in Staffordshire is Joseph Potter (1756-1842), who was born in Lichfield, and who had a considerable practice in Staffordshire and the neighbouring counties in the late 18th and early 19th century. Potter had some bruising encounters with Pugin in the 1830s, but also influenced Pugin in ways that the great master of the Gothic revival in church architecture never acknowledged .

Early in his career as an architect, Joseph Potter was employed by James Wyatt, one of the most prominent architects of the day, to supervise his alterations to Lichfield Cathedral in 1788-1793 and to Hereford Cathedral in 1790-1793.

At this time, Potter also worked with Wyatt in repairing Saint Michael’s Church, Coventry (later Coventry Cathedral) in 1794 and on rebuilding Plas Newydd, Anglesey (1795-1823), for the 1st Marquess of Anglesey. At Plas Newydd, Potter was responsible for designing and building the Gothic chapel. He also carried out alterations between 1816 and 1830 to the Gothic Hall at Beaudesert House, on the edges of Cannock Chase, for the Paget family, Marquesses of Anglesey.

Potter became the established architect at Lichfield Cathedral, overseeing the repairs to the south-west spire (1794), the restoration of the vaults in the north transept (1795-1797), and the restoration of the west front (1820-1822).

Newton’s College at the entrance to the Cathedral Close, Lichfield, designed by Joseph Potter in 1800 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Potter was also the architect in 1800 for Newton’s College in the Cathedral Close. The college was established by Andrew Newton as an almshouse for the widows and unmarried daughters of clergy, particularly those who had served in Lichfield Cathedral. Newton was the son of a Lichfield brandy and cider merchant, and endowed the college with a bequest of £20,000.

The college buildings are a range of 16 dwellings with a central doorway designed by Potter and built in brick with stone facings on the south side of the road from Beacon Street. The first almswomen moved in probably towards the end of 1803. Potter also designed a house at the south-west corner of the range in Beacon Street that provided a further four dwellings. The college trustees transferred the building to the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield Cathedral in 1988.

In 1816, Potter designed the Causeway Bridge at Bird Street, crossing the Minister Pool and linking the Cathedral Close with the rest of the city.

Towards the end of his career, Potter also designed Holy Cross Church, Upper Saint John Street, Lichfield, in 1835. Father John Kirk bought the site for a Roman Catholic church in Upper Saint John Street in 1802 and within a year had built a house and a chapel that was originally dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

When the chapel was enlarged and rebuilt by Joseph Potter in 1834, the dedication was changed to the Church of the Holy Cross. The Church is a brick building in a Gothic style with an entrance front and turret of Tixall stone in a mixed Romanesque and Gothic style, designed by Joseph Potter.

The entrance to Potter's turret in Holy Cross Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

While Potter was working on Holy Cross Church in 1834, the great Gothic revival architect, AWN Pugin, first visited Staffordshire and stayed in Lichfield during this architectural tour of the Midlands and the West Country “in search of the picturesque and the beautiful.”

Pugin’s stay in Lichfield was memorable for two reasons. First of all, he arrived late at night, and in the dark he crept unwittingly into the wrong bedroom. Aware of something soft and warm in the bed, he found it to be “the thigh of a female occupant already turned in.” There were loud screams and shouts. Chambermaids came rushing in with lighted candles. Pugin had some difficulty in convincing everyone that he had made a genuine mistake.

But Pugin was in for another unpleasant shock when he visited Lichfield Cathedral the next day. Taken aback by the refurbishment of the cathedral thirty years earlier by James Wyatt (1746-1813), he declared: “Yes – this monster of architectural depravity, this pest of Cathedral architecture, has been here. need I say more.”

Referring to Lichfield’s own architect, Joseph Potter, he said: “The man I am sorry to say – who executes the repairs of the building was a pupil of the Wretch himself and has imbibed all the vicious propensities of his accursed tutor without one spark of even practical ability to atone for his misdeeds.”

Pugin found the fabric of the cathedral had been mutilated by “the Wretch” – and he also described Lichfield as “a dull place – without anything remarkable.”

The interior of the Church of the Holy Cross, Upper John Street, Lichfield, today ... the screen and furnishings designed by Pugin in 1841 are no longer here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Pugin returned to Lichfield in 1837. After staying briefly at Wolseley Park with Sir Charles Wolseley, a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, Pugin returned to Lichfield. By then, Potter had completed Holy Cross Church, and Pugin would add a screen and other furnishings in 1841 ... although they have long disappeared.

Holy Cross Church, Upper John Street, Lichfield ... the door is reflected in AWN Pugin’s designs for Saint Michael’s Church, Gorey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Potter’s designs for Holy Cross, including his entrance door and his turret of Tixall stone in a mixed Romanesque and Gothic style, later influenced Pugin’s designs for Saint Michael’s Church, Gorey, his only Romanesque-style church in Co Wexford. Potter’s West Doors of Lichfield Cathedral would also inspire Pugin’s design for the doors of Saint Chad’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Birmingham.

It was only after this second visit to Lichfield that Pugin arrived for the first time at Alton Towers, the home of the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury, on 31 August 1837, staying there for the next four days. Lord Shrewsbury’s Irish titles included Earl of Wexford; Lady Shrewsbury was Maria Theresa Talbot, was the daughter of William Talbot of Castle Talbot, Co Wexford, and the favourite niece of John Hyacinth Talbot MP, of Ballytrent, Co Wexford.

The visit changed Pugin’s career for ever, and transformed the ecclesiastical landscape of both Staffordshire and Co Wexford. Lord Shrewsbury’s influence led to Pugin rebuilding Alton Towers and designing great works of architecture including Saint Giles’s, Cheadle, and Saint Mary’s, Uttoxeter. The patronage of Lady Shrewsbury’s uncle brought Pugin to Wexford the following year.

Potter was the architect at Oscott College from 1834 to 1839, but he was replaced by Pugin when the college buildings were almost complete.

Potter’s other works in Lichfield and the surrounding area include:

● Christ Church, Burntwood (1819-1820);
● Chetwynd Bridge, Alrewas (1824);
● Freeford Hall, enlarged for the the Dyott family (1826-1827);
● The High Bridge, Armitage (1829-1830);
● Saint John Baptist Roman Catholic Church, Tamworth (1829-1830).

Potter lived in Pipehill outside Lichfield and had his office in Saint John’s Street. He was the county surveyor of Staffordshire for 45 years until his death in 1842. He had three sons who all carried on the family profession:

● Robert Potter (1795-1854), the eldest son, was architect and designed many buildings.
● Joseph Potter Jnr. (1797-1875) took over his father’s practice after his death. He designed the Guildhall (1846-1848) and the Clock Tower (1863) in Lichfield.
● James Potter (1801-1857), the youngest son, was a civil engineer who worked mainly on canals and railways.

Walking along Minster Pool beneath the spires of Lichfield Cathedral

The spires of Lichfield Cathedral reflected in the waters of Minster Pool, seen from the new Minster Pool Walk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

It has been a pleasure this week to see how the Minster Pool Walk in Lichfield has been revamped and reopened. The area beneath the cathedral spires has been transformed as part of the city’s Historic Parks Project.

The work carried out in recent months includes dredging the pool, repairing the south bank with local sandstone to create a new vertical edge, reinforcing the banks, installing new railings, new seating and benches, resurfacing the paths, planting and creating a new Speakers’ Corner. New trees have also been added to the ancient avenue of lime trees and up-lighters have been installed at the base of the trees.

The renewed Speakers’ Corner at the Dam Street end of Minster Pool (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The restoration work began last year with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery Fund.

Lichfield City Council owns and manages the Minster Pool Walk. The council leader, Councillor Terry Finn, who has said he is “delighted that Pool Walk is now open again,” says: “The quality of the restoration work to this popular area is outstanding. It will be a great boost to the city and I am sure it will be appreciated for many years to come.”

Lichfield District Council’s Cabinet Member for Development Services, Councillor Neil Roberts, has said: “We still have a few finishing touches to make, including improving the planting, which we’ll do in the autumn, as well as installing historic information signs.”

Minster Pool, which has a capacity of 28,000 cubic metres and a surface area of 8,700 sq m, is a reservoir between Bird Street and Dam Street in the heart of Lichfield, directly south of Lichfield Cathedral, and in the past it played an important part in the defence of the Cathedral Close.

Lichfield is built on both sides of a shallow valley. Leamonsley Brook flows from the west through Beacon Park, where it combines with Trunkfield Brook into a conduit under the Museum Gardens and they then flow under Bird Street into Minster Pool. The pool flows out through a pipe under Dam Street and Stowe Fields into Stowe Pool.

Bishop Walter de Langton built the first Causeway Bridge at Bird Street, linking the Cathedral Close and the town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Minister Pool was formed in the 11th century when a boggy stream was dammed at its eastern end to drive a mill on Dam Street. At one time, it was thought Minster Pool was formed in 1310 when Bishop Walter de Langton of Lichfield initiated the building of causeways on Bird Street and Dam Street to connect the Cathedral Close to the town. However, during dredging works in the 19th century, engineers discovered evidence that the pool is much older and that it was probably formed in a cavity created during quarrying for sandstone to build the cathedral around 1085.

According to the Domesday Book, the Bishop of Lichfield had two mills in 1086, one of which may have been on Dam Street and would have involved building the dam that formed Minster Pool.

In 1310, Bishop de Langton built a causeway on Bird Street, splitting a much larger pool into two. These became known as Bishop’s Fish Pool to the west and Minster Pool to the east of the causeway. At the same time, the bishop paved the streets and improved the fortifications at the Cathedral Close with high stone walls and towers on the north bank of the pool. At the same time, he may have improved and enlarged the dam at the east end of the pool.

Later, the south entrance to the Close, at the east end of Minster Pool on Dam Street, included a portcullis and drawbridge. The pool was a significant defence during the siege of Lichfield Cathedral during the Civil War in 1643-1646.

But the slow flowing nature of the streams caused a lot of siltation in the pool, but it was also used as a sewer for the Close. No wonder then that the pool became dirty and polluted.

In the 1720s, Daniel Defoe described how Minster Pool “parts Lichfield, as it were, into two cities, one is called the Town, and the other the Close.” In 1772 the pool was cleaned and landscaped by Lichfield Corporation. The poet and writer, Anna Seward, known as the “Swan of Lichfield,” lived in the Cathedral Close and was instrumental in landscaping the pool into a separate shape and developing a “New Walk” along the southern bank.

By the early 19th century, the narrow 14th century bridge built by Bishop de Langton on Bird Street was unable to carry coaches, and these had to be diverted around Stowe Pool and back onto Beacon Street. In 1816-1817, Bishop de Langton’s bridge on Bird Street was replaced with the current bridge. The new bridge was designed by the Lichfield architect, Joseph Potter (1756-1842), who was involved in repairing and restoring Lichfield Cathedral and designed nearby Newtown’s College and Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church in Upper John Street.

I have been interested in the past to note that AWN Pugin worked with Potter on Holy Cross Church, providing a rood screen, and in turn Potter’s entrance door, tower and spiral stairs had a marked influence on Pugin’s designs for Saint Michael’s Church in Gorey, Co Wexford.

Potter’s Causeway Bridge, built of ashlar stone, consists of three elliptical arches, a low parapet and iron railings with two pylons surmounted by lamp irons. Parts of Bishop de Langton’s original causeway were left below the new bridge, which could now carry the main London-Chester road.

By the mid-19th century, the pool was dirty once again and 5 ft of mud was dredged in 1855. During these works, cannonballs and shells from the Civil War in the 17th century were found in the mud.

The pool was used as a mill pond and fishery until 1856, when the mill was demolished. In 1857, the South Staffordshire Waterworks Co proposed filling in the pool and replacing it with a public gardens. But this proposal was very unpopular and the plans were changed to retain the pool.

Since then, Minster Pool has been a valued public amenity in Lichfield, with memorial gardens on both sides – the Garden of Remembrance was laid out on the north bank in 1920 after World War I, and the small memorial gardens that lie alongside Minster Walk were opened in 1955 following World War II. The waterworks company passed the ownership of the pool back to Lichfield District Council in 1968.

This week’s edition of the Lichfield Mercury reports the Lichfield Civic Society is objecting to the railings along the poolside walk, saying they are too high and significantly taller than those they replaced.But, tThe latest works by the council still enhance this area and have been an extra pleasure during this week’s visit to Lichfield.