Thomas Ripley was born to Leonard Ripley in in 1682 and was baptized on 12 February 1682 in Rillington, Yorkshire. It is likely he comes from a family of yeoman farmers with the same name who lived in Scampston. Although he began a man of humble origins, Ripley would soon make his way up through the government circles. The romanticized version of Ripley’s rise includes a young boy walking to London and making a name for himself but it is more likely he did this the old-fashioned way, through his connections. Also living in Scampston was a man named Sir William St. Quintin, lord of the Treasury 1714-1717, who held multiple government positions. A supporter of Walpole, it is likely that St. Quintin introduced Ripley to Walpole. Ripley’s connection with Walpole led him to marry one of Walpole’s servants, whose name is unknown, and an appointment in 1715 to labourer in trust at the Savoy. It was this position that allowed Ripley’s upward climb through the house of works, which was established to oversee the building of royal castles and residences. After this appointment, he quickly began to make his way up through the ranks. In 1721, he became Master Carpenter, in 1726 he was chosen as comptroller of the works, and in 1729 surveyor of Greenwich Hospital with the help of Walpole.
Several of his major government projects included the London custom house (1718-1725), the Admiralty (1723-1726), which is the first Georgian style government building, the Queen Mary block, and the chapel at Greenwich (1729-1750). In 1720, Walpole commissioned Ripley as executant architect at his country seat in Houghton, Norfolk and would hire him for several projects over the coming years. Ripley’s influence on this project can be seen in the setting back the portico and on the west side of the estate, the opening the colonnades to the garden. Evidently please with his work, Walpole lent Ripley out to his brother, Lord Horatio Walpole, in 1725 where Ripley starting working and designing Wolterton, Norfolk. It was noted that Ripley helped transform the formal park into a natural landscape. The Townshend family hired Ripley in 1731 to oversee renovations Rayham, Norfolk. He was trusted with large projects, such as when he joined William Kent in 1739 in brainstorming new designs for the houses of Parliament. During the period 1750-1754, Ripley worked on the Horse Guards, originally designed by Kent, and made several alterations to Kent’s work.
|The Old Admiralty Building|
Ripley was also involved in several smaller schemes. He built houses in central London and on 16 Grosvenor Street in 1726 and was an advocate for the building of Westminster Bridge. When Richard Holt attempted to create an artificial stone in the 1720s, Ripley joined him. In 1722 the pair took out a patent for ‘A certain Compound Liquid Metal never before known and used by the Ancients or Moderns, by which Artificial Stone and Marble is made by casting or running the metall into Moulds of any Form or Figure ... which being petrified or vetrified and finished by Strong Fire, becomes more durable and harder than Stone and Marble ...” (“Richard Holt”). Unfortunately, Holt’s scheme never succeeded. Although artificial stone was a failed investment, Ripley’s money management was not a chronic issue. He managed to avoid the worst of the South Sea Bubble and somehow made money out of the scheme.
Although Ripley had made a name for himself within powerful families, not everyone held a respectful opinion of the architect. John Vanbrugh, a renown architect whom Ripley replaced as comptroller of the works, commented in 1721 upon seeing Ripley’s “Esquire” title that “such a laugh came upon me I had like to Beshit my Self” (Curl, 200). Alexander Pope, who was a close friend of the earl of Burlington who dabbled in Palladian architecture, wrote:
“See under Ripley rise a new White-Hall,
While Jones’ and Boyle’s united labor fall;
While Wren with sorrow to the grace descends;
Gay dies unpensioned with a hundred friends… “ (Curl 200)
Pope went on to comment in a footnote of his Moral Essays that Ripley “was a carpenter, employed by a first Minister who raised him to an Architect, without any genius in the art: and after some wretched proofs of his insufficiency in public Buildings, made him comptroller of the Board of works” (Pope, 154).
To his fellow architects, Ripley’s works were incredibly dull. Yet, others commend his simple and pragmatic approach. He was not one for flamboyant designs but subtle dignity and controlled austerity, which can be seen in his Wolterton design. He was also kind to his fellow craftsmen. When architects John James and Nicholas Hawksmoor went unpaid, Ripley offered to pay them with his own money.
Ripley’s first wife passed away on 20 November 1737. He remarried on 22 April 1742 a Sarah Bucknall, who would go one to inherit £40,000 and provided the family with financial stability. The couple’s marriage lasted ten years and ended with Sarah’s death in 1752. Ripley passed away on 10 February 1758 in Old Scotland Yard, succeeded by three sons and four daughters. He was buried a week later on 18 February in Hampton church.
Curl, James Stevens. 2011. Georgian architecture in the British Isles, 1714-1830. Swindon: English. https://books.google.com/books?id=CZ9mWbXrBAQC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Heritage. Ricketts, A. O. C. and Axel Klausmeier. “Ripley, Thomas (bap. 1682, d. 1758).” A. O. C. Ricketts In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman, October 2009. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/23664 (accessed May 16, 2015).
Pope, Alexander and William Warburton. The Works of Alexander Pope: Moral essays. London: A. Millar, 1757. https://books.google.com/books?id=xBYfAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=alexander+pope+moral+essays&hl=en&sa=X&ei=d9JYVebCDZDJogTsx4LgAQ&ved=0CCQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=ripley&f=false.
“Richard Holt.” A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain, 1660-1851. Accessed May 16, 2015. http://188.8.131.52/henrymoore/sculptor/browserecord.php?-action=browse&-recid=1368.