Thomas Archer, the only English architect who worked in a full-blooded Roman Baroque, is one of the most mysterious figures in English architecture. He came to notice as an architect in 1704 and then gradually disappeared during the 1720s. But during that time, he designed a number of houses as well as three of the most important Baroque churches in England.
Thomas Archer was probably born in about 1668 and brought up at Umberslade, Warwickshire. His father was also called Thomas and was apparently fairly wealthy, for he sent his young son to Trinity College Oxford from 1686 and paid for him to travel abroad for four years starting in 1689. Nothing is known of how he spent his time abroad, but it seems probable that he studied architecture in Rome and possibly in Vienna.
He seems to have had few friends or enemies, and extraordinarily little is known about his life. He probably established himself as a country house architect in the late 1690s, and he may have designed Umberslade House for his elder brother in about 1700, but the first thing we know for sure is that he designed and built the north front of Chatsworth in Derbyshire for the Duke of Devonshire in 1704.
In the next year of 1705 Thomas Archer was granted the Court post of “groom porter”, said to be worth one thousand pounds a year, so one must presume that he had some powerful patrons.
Roehampton House, Roehampton Lane, Roehampton (1710-12) was built as a country house for Thomas Cary. It has a dignified brick exterior, similar to his later Russell House, although it has since been greatly added to and is now part of a hospital.
Thomas Archer started work on his first church (St. Philip in Birmingham) in the same year as Roehampton House and two years later he started the first of his two London churches. In 1711, with Wren and a number of others, Thomas Archer had been appointed one of the commissioners for the Fifty New Churches, whose job was to supervise the work of the surveyors, Hawksmoor and Sanderson. Thomas secured the job of designing two of these churches.
Thomas Archer’s last church is the nearest thing in London to the Roman Baroque of Borromini. St. John, Smith. Square, Westminster (1714-28), is tucked away among small streets to the south of Westminster Abbey, where its four towers dominate the low houses, many contemporary, which surround it.
These splendid towers, which have brought the church much mockery from Classical purists and are still astonishing, were based on those of Borromini’s Sant’ Agnese in Rome of 1653-66. Their circular plan, rectangular lantern openings and concave roofline are all adapted from that source. The main windows and porticoes with melodramatically fractured pediments above are on a giant scale.
The church was burned out during the 1939-45 war and has been restored as a concert hall. Both entrances are at the sides, and the first impression inside is of a clear white lantern. The probable Roman training of the English architect is at once obvious in the way that the whole shape and plan is revealed immediately, just as in a Bernini church and in complete contrast to Nicholas Hawksmoor whose subtleties reveal themselves only gradually.
It is clear at once that the plan is a combination of a groin-vaulted square, with an east—west barrel-vaulted nave running through it, emphasised by the two long galleries. The plan of a cross is completed by the giant porticoes outside on north and south. The space is again lined with Archer’s beloved giant columns and pilasters.
This was the last of Thomas Archer’s major works in London. He was a man of forty-six when the building started in 1714 and it may be that he inherited enough family money to make his pursuit of work less keen.
He was twice married but had no children. The names and families of his wives are known but little more than that. In 1715 he bought a manor and estate at Hale, Hampshire, which he rebuilt for himself.
One of his major London work was the grand town house, Russell House, No. 43 King Street (1716-17), facing the side of the Inigo Jones church in Covent Garden. The strong vertical accents, together with the rather stiff magnificence of the almost cubist composition, are typical of Thomas Archer’s houses. The house was used as a vegetable warehouse in Covent Garden market until 1974, but its original appearance has now been largely restored.
The design of the Queen’s House, 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea (c. 1720) has been attributed to Thomas Archer, as has the surviving facade of Butterwick House (interior destroyed) in Queen Caroline Street, off Hammersmith Broadway, also of the 1720s. There is no documentary proof of his involvement in these houses, and a house which he did build in Cavendish Square in 1722 has been demolished.
By the time his two London churches were completed in 1730, Thomas Archer was in his sixties and his style was even more unfashionable than Hawksmoor’s. His last known London work is the monument to a lady called Susannah Thomas, in the south aisle of St. Mary’s Parish Church, Hampton, Twickenham, done in about 1731. After that little is known about him. He owned a house in Whitehall and divided his time between London and Hale until his death in 1743, the last survivor of the English Baroque movement.