The Scotch Corner Chapel in a remote area of countryside near Oldstead was built as a memorial to World War Two servicemen by renowned local sculptor and Ampleforth College schoolmaster John Bunting in 1957 from the ruins of an old hill farm. Several of his sculptures of wartime soldiers and paratroopers are also displayed inside.
The fire was started in a storage room, which was destroyed alongside a number of wooden statues, at around 9pm on Sunday June 13.
North Yorkshire Police are investigating the incident as both arson and a heritage crime, and are keen to trace two vehicles seen in the area by witnesses: a dark 4x4 with a female driver, and a small, dark-coloured car with three people in it.
PC Mark Atkinson said: “John Bunting’s War Memorial Chapel is an important and meaningful part of North Yorkshire’s heritage. We’re treating this incident extremely seriously, and I’d urge anyone with information about it, or who knows who is responsible, to come forward to the police.
“If you live near a historically important site, please be vigilant, and report any suspicious activity to the police straight away. We all need to work together to help protect our area’s rich heritage.”
The site has further historical signifiance, as it was where the Battle of Byland was fought in the 14th century, and there are also Bronze Age mounds nearby. It sits alongside a medieval drovers' route, Hambleton Street, thought to have been in use since ancient times.
John Bunting first discovered the farmstead as a pupil at Ampleforth in the 1940s, and it is still owned by his descendants today. It has been open to the public since 2013.
He returned to teach at his old school as a drawing master, where he was a mentor to Angel of the North sculptor Antony Gormley, and he also completed a 12-month apprenticeship with furniture maker Robert 'Mouseman' Thompson in his Kilburn workshop, lodging at the Fauconberg Arms Hotel in Coxwold.
The chapel contains inscriptions to Ampleforth old boys who were killed in the war, including Hugh Dormer, Michael Fenwick and Michael Allmand, and there are three stained glass windows inside.
Bunting taught life drawning at York Art School for 40 years and worked from a studio in the village of Nunnington until his death in 2002. One of his five children is the writer Madeleine Bunting and his grandson is the actor Josh O'Connor, who played Prince Charles in Netflix's The Crown.