Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thorpe, John (fl.1570-1610)

THORPE, JOHN (fl. 1570–1610), architect and surveyor, of the ‘parish of St. Martin's in the field,’ built or enlarged a number of mansions in the south of England from 1570, when he laid the first stone of Kirby Hall, down to 1618. A plan of the palace of Eltham was made by him in 1590 (Cal. State Papers, 1581–90, p. 706), while his drawings of the ‘Queen mother's howse’ in the Faubourg St.-Germain and of other houses in or near Paris, dated 1600, suggest a visit to France about that time. In 1609 he was named a commissioner for the king for surveying the Duchess of Suffolk's land (ib. No. 83, p. 515). In 1611 John Thorp, surveyor, was paid 52l. 3s. for repairs to the fence of Richmond Park, which had been damaged by a flood in the previous winter. In the Cottonian MSS. (Aug. 1, i. 75) there is a survey of Theobalds Park, drawn on vellum and tinted, said to have been made by Thorpe in 1611. Some of his drawings, such as that of Aston Hall, Warwickshire, may be referred to 1618, or perhaps later; but the date of his death is not known. He is said to have had a son John, ‘likewise a parishioner of St. Martin's’ (Peacham, loc. cit. infra).

Almost all the evidence as to Thorpe's professional work is contained in a ‘folio of plans,’ which in 1780, when its contents were first made known by Horace Walpole (Anecdotes of Painting), belonged to the Earl of Warwick. It subsequently passed into the Greville Library, but on 10 April 1810 was purchased by Sir John Soane, and is now in the Soane Museum. (A volume of tracings from it, by C. J. Richardson, 1836, is at South Kensington; for a revised list of the contents by Dallaway, see Walpole's ‘Anecdotes,’ ed. Wornum, 1888, i. 199.) The folio, which consists of 280 pages, contains plans of buildings, sections of stone work, and diagrams of perspective, drawn in pencil, and finished afterwards with the pen. The drawings were evidently made in the book itself, not subsequently bound together, with the exception of a few which have been pasted on blank pages. The internal evidence of draughtsmanship and handwriting warrants the attribution of almost all the drawings to Thorpe himself, though few are signed. Notes have sometimes been added by another hand to the original remarks in Thorpe's writing. The buildings of which plans or elevations are given include Henry VII's chapel, 1502, and a consecutive series ranging in date from 1547–9 (Old Somerset House, Strand) to 1618 (Aston Hall, near Birmingham).

Though the drawings are by Thorpe, it is impossible to attribute to him (as Horace Walpole seemed inclined to do) the original designs of such a number of buildings, covering so wide a range of date. It is most unlikely that an architect who worked on so vast a scale would have escaped all mention in contemporary literature. The differences in style are too great to be accounted for on the supposition of a single designer, however versatile, even in a period of transition and foreign influence. Where documents exist relating to the erection of the houses attributed to Thorpe, they have been found in no single case to confirm the attribution. Lastly, the majority, if not all, of the drawings are not working plans for buildings to be erected, but surveyor's drawings from finished buildings, which afford no evidence as to the original designer. The volume is too large for a sketch-book, but was probably a pattern-book, in which plans and elevations, collected from various sources, were entered as specimens for reference or for exhibition to clients.

One of the few independent records of Thorpe's work confirms this view of the character of the drawings. Holdenby, Northamptonshire, built for Sir Christopher Hatton before 1580 (now destroyed), has been attributed to Thorpe because the plan and elevation are in the Soane volume. It has been proved that Thorpe merely surveyed Holdenby, for the record exists of payment made to him on 4 June 1606 ‘for his charges in taking the survey of the house and lands by plots at Holdenby … and writing fair the plots of that and of Ampthill House and the Earl of Salisbury's, 70l. 8s. 8d.’ (Devon, Issues of the Exchequer, James I, 1836, p. 37). So the words ‘enlarged per J. Thorpe,’ on the plan of Ampthill, also in the same volume, probably mean drawn to a larger scale by J. Thorpe.

The buildings which can be ascribed with the greatest probability to Thorpe are the following:

  1. Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire, built for Sir Humphrey Stafford, 1570 to 1575, which differs considerably, as carried out, from the plan (see Gotch, Architecture of the Renaissance in England, pt. iii.).
  2. The original building of Longford Castle, Wiltshire, begun in 1580 for Sir Thomas Gorges, but much altered at various dates. The original plan, a triangle, with a plain round tower at each apex, founded on the well-known diagram of the Trinity, is probably Thorpe's; but no English builder can be credited with the extravagant facade in German renaissance style, which is later in date, and the elevation in the Soane volume must be regarded as a surveyor's drawing.
  3. Thorpe had at least a share in the first design of Holland House, Kensington, as built in 1606–7 for Sir Walter Cope [q. v.] This is shown by the words on the drawing ‘Sir Walter Coap at Kensington, perfected by me, J. T.’
  4. There is a curious design of a house built for himself, the ground-plan of which forms the letters I T, connected by a low corridor, with the rhyming inscription: ‘Thes 2 letters I and T, Joyned together as you see, is meant for a dwelling howse for me. John Thorpe.’ The elevation shows a plain house in three stories, with an attic and gables, not unlike many of the smaller brick houses of the period.

Other houses in the building of which it is probable that Thorpe was concerned in some degree are:

  1. Buckhurst, in Sussex (now destroyed), finished in 1568 for Sir Richard Sackville, who afterwards as Earl of Dorset carried out alterations and additions to Knole, Kent, 1603–1605, where the gables and the treatment of the south side of the inner court are in Thorpe's manner.
  2. Rushton Hall, Northamptonshire, 1595. The more remarkable buildings in the same neighbourhood, the triangular lodge at Rushton, Rothwell Market-house, and Lyveden New Building, which have also been attributed to Thorpe, were probably designed by Sir Thomas Tresham.
  3. Audley End, Essex, 1610 to 1616 (greatly altered in 1700, 1721, and 1749), where he is said to have worked in conjunction with Bernard Janssen [q. v.], probably as his subordinate.

The more important houses which have been attributed to Thorpe on insufficient grounds are the following: Longleat, Wiltshire, the design of which is also attributed to Sir John Thynne, for whom it was built, 1567–78; Theobalds, Hertfordshire, for Lord Burghley, 1571; Burleigh House, Northamptonshire, for the same, 1575–80; and Wollaton, Nottinghamshire, begun in 1580 for Sir Francis Willoughby, of which Robert Smithson (d. 1614) is expressly named as the architect and surveyor in his epitaph in Wollaton church.

Thorpe was mentioned by Henry Peacham [q. v.] in his ‘Gentleman's Exercise’ (1634, p. 12) as his especial friend, an excellent geometrician and surveyor, and ‘not onely learned and ingenuous himselfe, but a furtherer and favorer of all excellency whatsoever, of whom our age findeth too few.’ Of his career no less than of his life and character our knowledge remains very imperfect. It is not even certain that he was an architect at all, in the modern sense of the word. He was a builder, surveyor, and skilled architectural draughtsman, but there is no positive evidence that he designed any of the buildings attributed to him. If he did so, as may fairly be assumed in the case of Kirby and Holland House, he remained faithful to the tradition of the English gabled house, strictly planned and sober in detail of ornament, without indulging in the fantastic extravagance to which some of the Elizabethan builders were led by copying German models. He represents the period of transition between the mediæval builder designers and the academic architects of the seventeenth century.

Owing to the presence of a plan of Old Somerset House, Strand, in the Soane volume, John Thorpe has been confused with ‘that other ignis fatuus of archaeology,’ John of Padua [see Padua, John of].

[Book of Drawings by Thorpe, Soane Museum; Dict. of Architecture, art. ‘Thorpe,’ by Wyatt Papworth; Gwilt, Encyclopædia of Architecture and Building News, 1878, vol. xxxiv.; On Longleat, Building News, 1857, xiv. 623; Articles by J. A. Gotch, Building News, 1884 xlvi. 782, 790, 1885 xlix. 891, 909; Builder, xlv. 764, 780; Gotch's Buildings of Sir Thomas Tresham, 1883, and Architecture of the Renaissance in England, 1891–4, with plans and views of most of the Buildings attributed to Thorpe. Blomfield's Hist. of Renaissance Architecture in England, 1500–1800, 1897, vol. i. chap. iii. The English Builders.]

C. D.