A guest blog by Dr Manolo Guerci, about a special project funded by the University of Kent Research Reboot Scheme and the British Academy

The Book of Architecture of John Thorpe (c.1565-1655) consists of some 295 drawings ranging primarily from the 1590s to the 1620s and covering 168 buildings, mainly but not only English, and amongst the greatest of the period. The drawings include plans, elevations, some full-size sections of mouldings, and a depiction of the five orders derived from Hans Blum’s 1550 treatise on the orders. 

Bound in a hard cover in the 18th century, since 1810 the album has been preserved in one of London’s most iconic museums of British architecture, created by the celebrated architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837), who added to the album with about six sketches of his own. 

The first comprehensive catalogue was made by Sir John Summerson, the Museum’s celebrated Curator from 1945 to 1984, published as Volume 40 of the Walpole Society in 1964-66. His work, as Summerson himself stated, was nonetheless an analysis of ‘plans contained in the book and not in the first instance an enquiry into Thorpe’s work as a planner’. This is a crucial piece of the puzzle for which we exclusively rely on a fuller understanding of what is still an enigmatic collection. Indeed, even if Thorpe is no longer an ‘ignis fautus’, a mere name without substance, as Reginald Bloomfield dismissed him in 1897, his role as an architect, and, consequently, his broader influence on period and profession, remain controversial. 

The importance of the Soane Museum’s Thorpe album and its potential for a broader understanding of the period cannot be overstated, as it is ‘perhaps the most important relic in existence of architectural drawings and designs in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I’ (Summerson, 1964-66). It is in fact one of only two such collections extant. The other is the Smythson Collection at the Royal Institute of British Architects, it too first catalogued in the 1960s, by Mark Girouard, and currently being reassessed and re-catalogued Olivia Horsfall-Turner (V&A/RIBA Drawings Curator). This attests to the timely nature of this project, enriched by the potential of sharing expertise. 

Specificity and originality

Thorpe’s relevance within a defining moment in British architecture is paramount. The period sees the establishment of what we might call a truly English style, characterised by an eclectic and highly experimental mixture of vernacular and continental features, so splendidly expressed, for instance, by the likes of Wollaton Hall (1580s), Nottinghamshire, or indeed in one of Thorpe’s plans for his own house, devised as ‘IT’, after his (Latin) initials. Yet, despite Summerson’s pivotal, if by now clearly outdated catalogue of the drawings, and a number of subsequent studies touching, inter alia, on Thorpe’s scholarly activities – namely the English translation of Hans Blum’s treatise (published in 1601 by Hans Woutneel as ‘The Booke of Five Columnes of Architecture’), and the manuscript translation of Du Cerceau’s 1576 edition of ‘Leçons de Perspective Positive’ – Thorpe is still described primarily as a land surveyor (Colvin, ‘A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840’, 2008). Equally, the period still suffers from an historical characterisation as 'insular' or 'backward' in comparison to great Renaissance centres such as Florence or Rome. 

My book on ‘London’s ‘Golden Mile’: The Great Houses of the Strand, 1550-1650’ (2021) shows how this is anything but. It also reconsiders instances of Thorpe’s work within the competitive galaxy of the capital, alongside the biggest names in the building trade of the day. As previously remarked, however, a full understanding of his role as an architect requires a new comprehensive analysis of all the drawings, which still present formidable problems of classification and identification, and many un-answered questions: which are surveys of existing buildings or copies of designs for buildings by others? Which are original designs by Thorpe, and of these, which were made for his own amusement (or possibly for an intended publication, planned but never achieved), and which for actual buildings? And of the latter, which were offered to potential patrons on spec, and which actually commissioned?

Tackling these questions would reveal a great deal on the period, as it unveils a precursor of the professional architect: a man highly skilled as draughtsman, surveyor and theorist who laid the ground for modern design practice. His album attests to knowledge of sources as diverse as Palladio, Serlio, De Vries and Du Cerceau, and provides rare insights into period, profession, provenance and emulation, highlighting tensions and developments between the role of draughtsman, surveyor, and the emerging figure of the architect. It thus depicts a key development of both role and scope of the royal Office of Works (predecessor of the Ministry of Works, established in 1378 to oversee royal building), setting the scene for other illustrious figures such as the celebrated royal Surveyor Inigo Jones (1573-1652), or indeed the eminent successive holder of that post, Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723).

In effect, Thorpe’s own role as an Office-of-Works surveyor, his wide scholarly interests, his use of continental printed sources, and his private practice – the extent of which is another aspect to be further explored – gave him a unique set of skills by comparison with his contemporaries, including Inigo Jones, who lacked training in surveying and building construction. Not until Wren do we find a similar range of skills brought to bear on the profession as are evident in the Thorpe volume of drawings.

Aims, objectives and outcomes

Alongside new catalogue entries featuring digital copies of the drawings in colour, enlargeable, and uncut, this new edition will include a c.40.000-word critical analysis addressing all aspects above-mentioned. For the first time, this material will be freely available on the Museum’s website, with a fully searchable database, bibliography, and links to other collections. At the forefront of internationally-admired scholarly cataloguing standards, the Soane provides the ideal infrastructure for this project, which has academic, professional, and pedagogical potentials.

A joint collaborative exhibition organised by myself and Olivia Horsfall-Turner (V&A/RIBA Architecture-Partnership-Lead Curator) on ‘Drawing buildings: observation, invention and the architect in Early Modern England’, bringing together, for the first time, both the Thorpe and Smythsons’ drawings, amongst other relevant material, is also being organised. This will increase the scope and impact of both projects, and the significance of the collections, and as exhibitions at the Museum are free and viewed by all visitors.

The exhibition will address:

  • The role of drawn evidence and the development of the architectural profession in the Early-Modern period, hence in the Elizabethan and early Jacobean period, alongside aspects broadly related to architectural, artistic and societal changes in England and beyond at the time.
  • The role of drawings within the broader intellectual context of the relationship between building and drawing from around 1580 to around 1630
  • The significance of these collections as unique case studies in the practical associational value of drawing within Early-Modern architectural culture
  • Relationship between print and drawing culture
  • Role of drawings in the transmission of ideas
  • Relationship between drawings and Early-Modern concepts of invention and ingenuity
  • Challenges of representing buildings within the emerging profession of the ‘architect’

Both collections will be discussed at a Study Day next year.  

The Thorpe online new critical edition cum catalogue will then be extended into a monograph with broader scope.

Dr. Manolo Guerci 

Kent School of Architecture and Planning
University of Kent