The Untalented Mr Ripley


It was Donovan who directed me (some time ago, now, ahem) to one of Greenwich’s unsung heroes, a curious character who seems to have been an odd combination of civil-servant pedantry and puppyish enthusiasm, but who I reckon I would have liked to know.

Thomas Ripley (no – not that one…) was a carpenter and former coffee-house owner who rose to the heady position of Comptroller of the King’s Works, but that didn’t stop him being (in fact it may have been the reason for his being) mercilessly ribbed by the great artists and architects of his day.

Sir John Vanbrugh merely sniggered at him behind his back, but Alexander Pope launched a full-on public humiliation programme. He never missed an opportunity to refer to Ripley in one or other of his tedious odes – here’s an example from the dazzlingly-titled Epistle IV To Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington:

Heav’n visits with a taste the wealthy fool,
And needs no rod but Ripley with a rule.

Thank me now for not including all 204 lines from this sizzler. I sometimes wonder why Pope’s so revered. I certainly don’t think he was so highly-qualified in the talent department that he could afford to lay into poor old Thomas Ripley – but talent doesn’t really come into this tale.

Because this is a a classic case of snobbery. Okay, Ripley’s buildings aren’t the stuff of genius. Okay, his work can be a bit on the clumpy side – for one whose big hero was Andrea Palladio, his proportions were all over the shop. Okay, he was never going to eclipse the architectural firmament of the day – Jones, Wren, Hook – or, for that matter, even Vanbrugh himself, but he was solid and diligent and he got things done.

Ripley was never allowed to forget where he came from – and he often did himself no favours in the social-mountaineering department – or not at first glance, anyway. His first wife was a servant, which caused no end of hilarity. She just happened to be, however, a servant in Robert Walpole’s household.

And, hand-on-heart, he was a tad shameless when it came to holding onto Walpole’s frock coat tails as he rose to become England’s first Prime Minister. Walpole (who wasn’t renowned for immaculate taste, bless him) liked Ripley’s work and after getting him to rework a couple of his own gaffs, started to get him onto public buildings.

They weren’t architectural triumphs. He got things wrong all over the place. Mainly the proportions, though there were also a few anachronisms and it all ended up looking slightly old-fashioned. Quite a few of his buildings have been tarted up over the years to hide his mistakes.

And he started to get a bit jumped-up, which also didn’t help his image among the great architects of the day. Sir John Vanbrugh (who wasn’t at all jealous of Ripley’s influence with Walpole, no…) saw that Ripley had started signing himself ‘Esquire’ and laughed so much “that I had to beshit myself.”

But Ripley did improve. In fact he tried a couple of things which worked rather well – incorporating decorations usually found on the exterior inside houses, for example. Think Madonna, in the satin pointy-bra phase…

But he just couldn’t shake that image of his. Pope made him a model for his interminable poem about ‘dulness’ (I’m not mentioning anything about pots and kettles here) and never failed to point out Ripley’s humble origins. Here’s another howler:

See under Ripley rise a new Whitehall
While Jones’ and Boyles’ united labours fall.

So – where does Greenwich come in? Well, as Comptroller of the King’s Works, it was Ripley who saw the Chapel and the Queen’s Block of Greenwich Hospital finished. Because however unexciting he may or may not have been as an architect (and I for one am now going to seek out some of his stuff to find out just how bad he really was…) what he was good at was being a Site Manager.

The hospital was finished by Thomas Ripley, and, thanks to him, was fit for purpose. He actually gave a damn about the project. He even paid Hawksmoor out of his own pocket when cash got tight. And I think that’s worth something. We can’t all be geniuses. We need foot soldiers too.

And, I note, he had the last laugh. His second wife was an heiress who brought him £40,000 – and he was one of the only people who actually made money on the South Sea Bubble.

Or maybe the last laugh. It would seem History is never going to be kind to Tom Ripley. According to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, the poor sod “is commemorated by a plague at the Guildhall, London.” Even on the worldwide web, dignity evades him…

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