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.

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