Architecture: And he's also an expert in armed robbery: Peter Wayne is a historian of English baroque. Chettle is a house he admires. Long Lartin jail is where he resides. Joanna Gibbon reports

PETER WAYNE, expert in the English baroque, must be the most unlikely architectural historian, aesthete and dilettante of the twentieth century. Most of his days are spent not cooped up in the library of some agreeable country pile toying with an article for Country Life, but locked up at Her Majesty's pleasure in a tiny cell at Long Lartin, Worcestershire, a high-security prison with few redeeming architectural features.

But, on distinctly odd weekends this summer, the former armed robber has been swapping porridge for canapes, leaving jail to organise a touring festival marking the 250th anniversary of the death of Thomas Archer (1668-1743).

Archer was a baroque architect of some eccentricity and, perhaps until now, undeserved obscurity. His best known buildings are the churches of St John's, Smith Square, and St Paul's, Deptford, both in London. His magnificent country houses seem little known.

Wayne is serving a 10-year sentence for robbing eight building societies, aggravated by an escape from prison in 1989. Since then, through his in-

depth study of Archer, he has metamorphosed into a promising architectural historian recognised by such authorities as Mark Girouard and encouraged by such figures as Sir Richard Rogers. When the parole board finally agrees to his release - possibly this autumn - he has a place reserved at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where he hopes to pursue his studies of the baroque.

A fortnight ago Wayne, sporting a dinner jacket ('lent to me by an old Etonian'), was rehearsing actors for an evening festival performance of baroque prose and music at baroque Heythrop (1705-15), an impressive Archer-designed country house in Oxfordshire. The house is owned by the National Westminster Bank, which uses it as a training college.

'The bank did some fairly sympathetic decoration,' says Wayne, 'but the awful turquoise carpets and dreadful Dralon used everywhere shout institution.' Impervious to criticism of its corporate taste, NatWest was, however, understandably questioning of the motives behind this summer's Archer festivals when it received a letter from Long Martin seeking permission to use the house.

However, the guest list Wayne produced at the drop of a top-hat persuaded the bank that the Archer evening would be good publicity. A turn around the grounds with Wayne shows why. While a smart-looking society audience settles around groaning picnic hampers, Wayne name- drops them all at great speed. Here's Viscount Norwich, there Sir Richard Rogers, here the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, there lord this and lady that.

And if anyone at NatWest even thought of questioning Wayne's art historical credentials, a breathless tour of Heythrop with Wayne as guide would convince even the most sceptical in seconds. Here is the central hall. See where, during the 1870s, Alfred Waterhouse (architect of the Victoria & Albert Museum) rebuilt the room after the original was destroyed by fire. From the hall's gallery, Wayne waves his arms at scrolled volutes, acanthus leaves, triglyphs, guttae and giant baroque keystones.

'These are all very Archerian,' he enthuses, 'but the Ionic order Waterhouse chose is definitely out of keeping.' Who dares to disagree?

Although Wayne's enthusiasm for the English baroque is unusual in a one-time armed robber, his story is not one of the golden-hearted East End boy who loves his mum, turns bad, robs banks and becomes a saint in prison. He says he was the spoilt child of kindly, self-made, middle- class parents and brought up in Bolton, Lancashire. 'I had great promise, but I was a lazy little bugger.' He did fairly well at school, went on school visits to Italy, where his classics master spoke only in Latin, and scraped through all his exams.

He and his father differed over his future. 'My father wanted me to go into his abattoir business and I wanted to go to Rada.' A compromise led Wayne to Birmingham University to read economics. 'I hated it. I dropped out in the first term, joined a casino and gambled away my allowance. My money ran out, so I wandered around the country, taking people's cheque books and credit cards.'

The next 15 years of his life have been spent in and out of prison. He cannot explain his thieving, saying only that it was a compulsion. He would slip into golf clubs and steal from the members' changing rooms ('having a middle-class accent helped'). He progressed to robbing building societies. 'I had a knife, but never a gun,' he says.

It was while on the run four years ago that Wayne stumbled into his first Archer building, St Paul's in Deptford. 'It was a wet, dark December night when I saw the church; there was something slightly mesmerising about it - I went up and touched it.' He passed St Paul's church several times, attending a service in order to see its interior, before the police caught him outside the church. 'It's locked up nearly all the time,' he says, adding - without a trace of irony - 'there are a lot of thieves in Deptford.'

Back in prison, the day after the service at St Paul's, Wayne wrote down everything he could remember about the church. It was the start of an obsession that led to this summer's Thomas Archer festivals.

An art teacher at Wandsworth prison, where he was held after re-arrest, encouraged Wayne's enthusiasm for Archer. Wayne contacted the National Buildings Record, which sent him some useful information. Next he pursued the library of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Researching from prison had its advantages. 'It might be cramped, but people respond promptly, possibly out of curiosity when they see a prison address.'

Bit by bit, Wayne built up a picture of his subject. Archer was born in Warwickshire, the younger son of a country squire, and went to Oxford before going on the Grand Tour. His work has to be strongly influenced by Bernini and Borromini. He was also, Wayne discovered, a serious gambler. So much so, that in 1705 he was given the lucrative post of Groomporter to the court of Queen Anne, responsible for organising the court's gambling tables and furnishing the royal apartments. This enabled Archer to design, gamble and climb the social ladder, winning commissions for country houses on the way up.

Wayne's research archive has swollen from a single letter from the National Buildings Record to a cell stuffed with brown envelopes. His contacts book contains a thousand Archer-related names and addresses from around the world. His researches enabled him to unearth some of Archer's 'geometric notebooks' at the Shakespeare Birth Trust. He has also found a watercolour of Archer's Chet- tle House, near Blandford Forum, Dorset, since returned to the house. He has received small financial awards from the Architects Registration Council and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

His work has been seriously scrutinised by Mark Girouard and the Soane Museum - and both advised him to widen his studies. 'I now know everything I feel I can know about Archer, but I haven't yet been able to compare him with his contemporaries, as a true historian should,' he says, which is why he is eager, parole board willing, to start at the Courtauld this autumn.

Wayne is pleased with his achievements. 'I am accepted for myself and for my work, regardless of where I achieved it. It has enabled me to drag Archer out of undeserved obscurity, which I think harks back to the universal Victorian distaste for all things baroque. He has never quite made it back since, unlike Wren, Vanburgh and Hawskmoor.'

The Archer festivals have been another ambition fulfilled. So far, there have been four: at Finchcocks, in Kent; Rous Lench, in Worcestershire; Heythrop; and Chettle - Wayne's favourite Archer house. 'It is an essay in curves and spaces, built in a very uncompromising baroque style, after Archer retired to the country in the 1720s, when the florid baroque architecture he favoured had gone out of fashion,' he says.

All this is very exciting, except that Wayne is still in prison and is itching to leave; his fellow inmates are also not a little peeved by his dashing in and out. He tends to keep quiet about his outside life, but it is difficult. 'I still haven't heard whether I will get parole for the Courtauld course. It is ludicrous, I am open prison material and I am still in a top security place,' he says. You almost expect him to say, 'I was robbed.'

Thomas Archer festival dates. 11 September: Archer at Hale, Fordingbridge, Hampshire; for tickets, call 0725 21116. 30 October: Archer and the Crofts, Lucton School, Herefordshire; tickets available from 1 September from the Hon Mrs Uhlman, 056 885 560. 9 November: Thomas Archer and the Pearl of Deptford; tickets from Blackheath Concert Hall ticket office.

(Photograph omitted)

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