Thomas Archer: the unsung master of English Baroque, and the revival of Roehampton House

Roehampton House, SW London - Thomas Archer, 1712 (Image: St James)
Roehampton House, SW London – Thomas Archer, 1712 (Image: St James)

Thomas Archer is described as the most European, and certainly one of the most accomplished, of the English Baroque architects.  His later relative obscurity was mainly due to the misfortune that his contemporaries were some of the greatest British architects of any era.  However, looking at the examples we do have of his work, we can clearly see his virtuoso skill and creative talent written into the fabric of the buildings.  The recent restoration of Roehampton House, London, and its conversion into apartments, is a rare chance to live in an example of his work.

Umberslade Hall, Warwickshire (Image: Fine & Country estate agents)
Umberslade Hall, Warwickshire (Image: Fine & Country estate agents) – a house not designed by Thomas Archer.

In many ways, Thomas Archer (b.1668 – d.1743) was the quintessential ‘gentleman architect’. The youngest son of Thomas Archer M.P. of Umberslade Hall, Warwickshire, he studied at Trinity College, Oxford, but clearly had broader horizons as, after graduating in 1689, he immediately undertook a four-year Grand Tour, heading to Italy via Germany and Austria.  Almost nothing is known of his time in Italy, yet he must have studied the architecture and been influenced so heavily that this became his chosen profession.  However, as a man of independent means, for Archer, this was less about earning a living and more about the translation of a recognisably ‘European’ form of Baroque to his native country. His architectural career was to be one of successive highlights; broadly, each commission was for a notable patron and the work produced of exceptional quality.

North front, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: bronndave via flickr)
North front, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: bronndave via flickr)

Archer’s gentry origins and Whig affiliations secured him a place at Court where he came to know one of the most powerful aristocrats, William Cavendish, the 4th Earl (1st Duke from 1694) of Devonshire.  Retiring to his estates during the reign of James II, in 1686 the Earl embarked on a programme to rebuild Chatsworth.  In doing so, he elevated the status and grandeur of the private country house to a level not seen since the Elizabethan Prodigy houses – but with the key difference that this was explicitly for non-Royal appreciation. The Duke found in Thomas Archer an enthusiastic collaborator, but one with the advantage of direct experience of the style of grand Italian architecture he so admired.  Chatsworth grew in phases, with the majestic south front begun in 1686, the east front in 1693 (both designed by William Talman), the west front in 1696 (possibly designed by the Duke), with Archer finally being given his opportunity, the north front, in 1705.  As the final phase, Archer had to unite the mismatched lengths of the east and west fronts, which he brilliantly achieved though the use of a visual distraction; a bowed central projection. The use of curves was to become a stylistic hallmark of Archer, one used repeatedly and almost uniquely in the work of the English Baroque architects.

No sooner had Archer secured his first commission than he simultaneously acquired his second; Heythrop House, Oxfordshire, for Charles Talbot, 1st Duke of Shrewsbury.  Unusually for a Talbot, the 1st (and only) Duke of Shrewsbury had converted from his Roman Catholic upbringing to Church of England, and had found favour at Court under Charles II, but he was required to live abroad between 1700-1706 and spent time in Italy.  Whilst there, his diary in 1704 records that he was given a draft plan for a house by Paolo Falconieri, Chamberlain to Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany, and occasional amateur architect. Marcus Whiffen believes that it was this draft which was given to Archer and on which he based his design for Heythrop.  One piece of evidence for the Italian origins of the designs were the very large rooms (e.g. the hall being 32ft x 27ft, a drawing room of 47ft x 25ft) which take little account of the colder English climate.

Heythrop Park, Oxfordshire - Thomas Archer, 1706 (Image: Heythrop Park Hotel)
Heythrop Park, Oxfordshire – Thomas Archer, 1706 (Image: Heythrop Park Hotel)

Heythrop is a confident work which clearly draws its inspiration from the Italian Baroque, with an energetically decorated façade, showing stylistic connections to Bernini’s rejected design for the Louvre.  The grand Oxfordshire palazzo was probably completed by the early 1720s – though sadly the Duke did not live to see this, having died in 1718.  The interiors were designed by James Gibbs but were tragically lost in the huge fire which completely gutted the house in 1831. It remained a shell until 1870 when it was bought by Thomas Brassey as a wedding present for his third son and commissioned Alfred Waterhouse to rebuild the interior. Sold in 1926, it became a Jesuit college until 1969, when it then became the Natwest Bank training college (the latter two uses leading to the construction of extensive ancillary buildings), and then in 1999, it was sold again to become the hotel it remains today.

Top: Pavilion at Wrest Park - plan from Colen Campbell (Vitruvius Britannicus)  Bottom: S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, Rome - plan by Michelanglo, from J. von Sandrart (Insignum Romae Templorum Prospectus)
Top: Pavilion at Wrest Park – plan from Colen Campbell (Vitruvius Britannicus)
Bottom: S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, Rome – plan by Michelanglo, from J. von Sandrart (Insignum Romae Templorum Prospectus)

Although Thomas Archer was not responsible for the design of the main house at Wrest Park (the later house we see today was designed by the then owner, Thomas de Grey, 2nd Earl de Grey), he did create one of the finest garden pavilions in the country.  In 1711, Archer was commissioned by Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Kent, to build an elaborate pavilion to terminate the axial view, looking down the Long Canal, from the main house.  Again, Archer demonstrated his familiarity with Rome, using a version of Michelanglo’s unexecuted plan for the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. This is still one of the most exciting buildings in the country; a distillation of Michelanglo, filtered through the English Baroque.

Continuing what must have been a busy period by Archer’s standards, in 1712 he also designed Roehampton House, south-west London, for Thomas Cary. To call the original design ‘dramatic’ is something of an understatement as the plate in Vitruvius Britannicus shows it with a grand, full-width broken pediment – though whether this was actually built or was, but later removed, is unclear.  The plan of the house itself was double-pile with flanking wings, though these were not built originally.  The house then passed through a number of aristocratic owners before being bought in 1910 by Canadian banker Arthur Morton Grenfell. It was Grenfell who commissioned Lutyens to extend the house – though the efforts were not to benefit him as he was declared bankrupt in 1914, before the interiors could be fully completed.

Archer’s next commission, also in 1712, was for Hurstbourne Priors [Park], Hampshire, though, intriguingly, the plan does not match the house that was built – two surviving pictures by John Griffier show a much plainer design.  Proving just what Archer intended and any differences to what was built would be almost impossible as the house was rebuilt by James Wyatt in c. 1780-85, then again by Beeston & Burmester after a fire in 1894 and finally demolished in 1965.  Intriguingly, Tim Mowl suggested that the ‘Bee House’ aka Andover Lodge, was also by Archer and represents an experiment with architectural forms.

Having achieved such success in his life, in 1715, Archer turned to designing his own home. The result was Hale Park, Hampshire, though the house which survives today is much altered following work by Henry Holland Junior in 1770, and further changes in the early and late 19th-century, which covered the brick in (a now unfortunately peachy) render, added a portico and raised the level of the forecourt. Also of note was Archer’s redesign of Hale Church, creating a slice of a Roman church in Hampshire.

After 1715, Archer seems to have curtailed his architectural work as he was given the lucrative post of ‘Controller of Customs’ at Newcastle and largely retired.  He is known to have designed Harcourt House for Robert Benson, Baron Bingley, which stood on the south side of Cavendish Square, London, until it was demolished in 1906.

Chettle House, Dorset (Image: Chettle House)
Chettle House, Dorset (Image: Chettle House)

One of Archer’s last commissions, Chettle House in Dorset, could be argued to be his finest. Built c.1730, for George Chafin, who was a neighbour of Archer’s after he bought the nearby Hale Park, the house is a striking summary of the various elements which Archer had used so well in other buildings, but which here achieve a perfect balance.  The curved corners of the exterior (though raised later), along with the projection on the entrance front combine to make the house truly sculptural.

However, there are a number of other intriguing attributions, which Archer may have worked on during his career, with varying degrees of certainty.

  • Welford Park, Berkshire – Thomas married into the Archer family (no relation) and was asked to re-model the house; adding an extra storey and grand Ionic pilasters.
  • Chicheley Hall, Buckinghamshire – c.1703 – suggested by Arthur Oswald in Country Life but not given in Colvin.  Various elements such as the materials and certain details used on other Archer houses strongly indicate his involvement. Interiors now terribly ‘bland-ified’ as a conference venue.
  • Aynhoe Park, Northamptonshire – between 1707-11 – on stylistic grounds and the evidence of a payment to him from Hoare’s Bank of £39 15s. 6d. by Thomas Cartwright.  This work included the addition of a library, conservatory, stables, and a coach-house – though the first two were later altered by Soane in 1800-1.
  • Bramham Park, Yorkshire – c.1710 – no evidence but stylistically possible. Designed for Robert Benson, who we know commissioned Harcourt House in London.
  • Kingston Maurward, Dorset – c.1717-20 – suggested by Howard Colvin.
  • Marlow House, Buckinghamshire, built c.1720, is now largely agreed to have been by Archer due to the use of particular elements and that it was commissioned by John Wallop, 1st Earl of Portsmouth, for whom he had designed Hurstbourne Priors.
  • Serle’s House, Hampshire – built in 1730, this house has clear stylistic similarities with Archer’s earlier work. Now the Royal Hampshire Regiment museum.
  • Addiscombe House, Surrey – Marcus Whiffen argues that it is undoubtedly Archer, and it could well be, but unfortunately further inspection is frustrated by its demolition in the early 1860s. Images are shown on pages 42 & 44 of a PDF of a local book [note: 10mb download].

The challenge with looking at Archer’s work is that there is relatively little of it.  Without the financial pressures to work, he was able to be very selective in what he chose to do, and due to that scarcity, his work was under-appreciated and occasionally altered or demolished.  In what we do have we can see an exceptionally talented architect who, although living in the shadow of the more productive Wren, Vanbrugh, and Hawksmoor, nevertheless developed a distinctive and influential blend of English and continental Baroque architecture.

Roehampton House, Surrey (Image: St James)
Roehampton House, Surrey (Image: St James)

Roehampton House offers a rare chance to experience both the genius of Archer and Lutyens – though here, clearly, the latter is happy to defer to the work of former and sympathetically embraces and extends it.  Though this is a house which has been ill-used in the past and suffered some damage in WWII, the latest phase has created what appears to be a fine restoration and conversion with a careful re-use of the interior features which have survived.  Although there are too many other buildings built too close to it, the quality of the original architecture has been allowed to shine to ensure that we can again see the work of Thomas Archer, one of the finest English architects we have heard too little about.


Disclosure: neither the developers, St James, nor their PR company, Luchford APM, have had any editorial input or control over this article, nor have I received anything. However, they have provided some details about the current project and the exterior photos. As always, topics and text on the blog are my choice and discretion.


A more detailed history can be found on historic paint consultant Patrick Baty’s page on Roehampton House

If you do fancy living there, prices start from £1.35m: Roehampton House [St James]