Obituary: Martin Caroe
Thursday 09 December 1999
That background brought with it not only an understanding of fine craftsmanship and creativity, but also a respect for the authentic character of the past, and an enthusiasm to carry out works ranging from modest repairs to huge conservation programmes. It brought also a strong link with William Morris's Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, whose files carry many references to the Caroe practice over three generations.
Caroe & Partners, of which Martin Caroe was a partner from 1963 until his death, was also unusual in having as strong a link with Wales as with England, and Caroe was architect to the Deans and Chapters of Brecon and St David's Cathedrals as well as Rochester, and for all three he had a special love. On the secular side, he broke new ground by the thoroughness of his work between 1982 and 1984 at Kingston Lacy, one of the National Trust's most important recent acquisitions, and by his willingness and ability to work in a really integrated way with experts in other disciplines, for example conservation scientists, engineers, archaeologists, and above all conservators; everyone talks about the importance of this approach, but he really did it.
So he was in his element in co- ordination of work from 1991 onwards at the Tower of London, including the feasibility study for the possible re- flooding of the moat; he engaged in programmes of environmental monitoring at Rochester Cathedral and his old school, Winchester College; and one of several well-merited awards was for the extensive work carried out at St Helen's Church, Abingdon, which included the work of conserving the outstandingly important 14th-century painted ceiling.
Behind all this was the unstinting example of Martin's father, Alban Caroe; and it was a delight to watch them together during the 12 years of researching and conserving the West Front of Wells Cathedral from 1974 to 1986, Martin gradually and tactfully taking over from his father. At the time, this was probably the most challenging and significant conservation programme in Europe; it touched many peoples' lives and, for many including Martin Caroe, everything was "before Wells" or "after Wells".
A great procession of British and foreign conservation luminaries made their way up the scaffolding during the programme of work (sensibly, the Dean of Wells at the time, Patrick Mitchell, said that "the only target is the completion of the work"). Caroe knew how to get the best out of us all, there were no barriers, and he was a born communicator, though not always a good listener. Telephone conversations with him were apt to come to an abrupt end, after he had finished saying what he wanted to say.
During the research, he, Pamela Tudor-Craig and I went on a fact- finding mission to the French cathedrals (others made similar missions to other countries, as we were determined to find out the best ways of conserving medieval sculpture). This mission was an extraordinarily happy and successful fortnight, during which we talked to many French colleagues and had various culinary adventures with our generous French hosts, especially Bertrand Monner, the towering giant of French conservation at that time who looked after Strasbourg Cathedral as well as Les Invalides.
On the return journey, being the driver of Caroe's car that day, I absent- mindedly dropped the keys of the car and home into the idyllic canal by which we had been picnicking before making a dash for the ferry. Caroe's response was instantaneous and typical: wasting no time for castigation or pointless investigation he strode to the nearby lock-keeper's cottage to see if he could telephone a garage. He returned with an enormous magnet and a huge grin and, happily, the magnet worked.
The extent of the esteem in which he was held can be gauged from the fact that he was a Commissioner of English Heritage (1989-92) and was still a Commissioner on the Cathedrals and Churches Commission for the Church in Wales. He also sat on the Bishop of Chichester's Commission to revise the Church of England's Faculty Jurisdiction, and the chapter on cathedrals was in essence drafted during a convivial weekend at Vann, Martin and his wife Mary's rambling home of many architectural periods, near Godalming in Surrey. That chapter has since been translated into legislation.
He sat on the Executive Committee of the Council for the Care of Churches from 1986 until 1992, and the CCC publication Stonework: maintenance of churches and surface repair (1984) written jointly with his father, bids fair to become a classic bench-mark in this field. He held a number of offices to which he brought his special qualities of thoroughness and friendliness, including being president of the Ecclesiastical Architects' and Surveyors' Association (1978-9), Master of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers (a family tradition, and reflecting the Arts and Crafts interest in the revival of the use of lead as a beautiful and useful building material).
The monosyllabic word "Vann" does not adequately conjure up the magic of a place which Martin and Mary Caroe loved to share with their friends and with countless visitors; it is partly the fact that it consists of several very good elements, knitted together by grandfather Caroe, and partly the fact that it is lapped by one of the great gardens of Surrey, or England, designed by Gertrude Jekyll for and with W.D. Caroe. To work in that garden, and to share its pleasures with others, was one of Martin's greatest joys.
There was to the end something boyish about Martin Caroe, and his enthusiasms; just as there was in his gait something of the former soldier; and there was also the family tradition of service and giving. I once shared a family holiday weekend in Pembrokeshire (St David's and its environs was another great love of his), and everything we did together, grown-ups and rapidly growing-up children, was such fun. But it was the same to sit on a committee with him too, or to read his reports: and such gifts, and the power to communicate them, are rare.
Martin Bragg Caroe, conservation architect: born 15 November 1933; Partner, Caroe & Partners 1963-99; FSA 1988; married 1962 Mary Roskill (one son, three daughters, and one son deceased); died 19 November 1999.
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