A Baroque banquet
Country Life UK|September 15, 2021
The Archer Pavilion, Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, In the care of English Heritage One of the most spectacular garden buildings of the English Baroque–as well as the architect that designed it– is ripe for reappraisal, says Helen Lawrence-Beaton
Helen Lawrence-Beaton

AFTER centuries of relative obscurity, Thomas Archer (1668–1743) is now taking his rightful place in the pantheon of great British Baroque architects with Wren, Vanbrugh, Hawksmoor and Gibbs. His pavilion at the end of the canal at Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, remains one of his most admired buildings and continues to delight modern visitors. Few realise, perhaps, how profoundly the surrounds of the pavilion have changed over time or that Archer contributed other buildings to the landscape here that have vanished.

The closest a modern viewer might come to experiencing the pavilion in its early-18thcentury context is via the atmospheric views by Peter Tillemans of about 1729. These show the gardens in their original character, with clipped topiary, statuary and neatly edged pathways. John Rocque’s 1735 estate plan of Wrest further shows the pavilion at the heart of the estate, the focus of a complex network of avenues and paths that led into the wider landscape. It was positioned to the south of the main house, since rebuilt (COUNTRY LIFE, March 30, 2011), at the end of the Long Water (Fig 2). To the east and west were two woodland groves intersected by a series of serpentine walks and compartments.

Archer and his patron at Wrest, Henry Grey, the 1st Duke of Kent (1671–1740), probably met at Court, where Archer was Groom Porter from 1705 until his death. In this curious post, he was responsible for overseeing gambling both at Court and throughout England. In return, he enjoyed a large salary, lodgings at Whitehall and, most importantly, excellent connections. Courtiers attended the Groom Porter’s rooms to gossip, drink and gamble extortionate amounts of money. Archer must have been affable, social and diplomatic in order to regulate the antics of his peers. His character and these circumstances presumably played an important role in helping him secure commissions for buildings; certainly, Grey is known to have been an enthusiastic gambler in his youth.

Grey had undertaken his Grand Tour at the same time as Archer and it is tempting to suggest that their paths first crossed as young gentlemen abroad. The Duke had a successful political career, amassing a swathe of prestigious posts, including Lord Chamberlain, but was mocked by his contemporaries for his personal cleanliness—his nickname was ‘The Bug’ and sometimes even ‘His Stinkingness’.

Despite these criticisms, few could find fault with his passion for gardening, combined with a skill for recognising and patronising architectural talent. The garden Grey created at Wrest was considered one of the greatest of its day and was praised by Stephen Switzer in Ichnographia Rustica (1718). The pavilion was designed to serve the garden as a banqueting house on the grandest scale, extending to three floors with a double-height, domed saloon at its heart (Fig 1).

Archer’s authorship is noted in the first volume of the architectural survey by Colen Campbell, Vitruvius Britannicus (1725), and its date of design recorded as 1709, although we know that work was still under way in 1712, when the interior was decorated for the enormous sum of £110.

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