A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art
History of Early American Landscape Design

William Peters

[http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/research/casva/research-projects.html A Project of the National Gallery of Art, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts ]

William Peters (1702–September 8, 1789) was an English lawyer and amateur architect from Liverpool who lived in Philadelphia for nearly three decades before returning to England. He built Belmont, one of the earliest villa-retreats on the banks of the Schuylkill River, and laid out formal gardens there.

History

Fig. 1, William Russell Birch, “View from Belmont Pennsyl.a the Seat of Judge Peters,” in The Country Seats of the United States (1808), pl. 16.

Peters arrived in Pennsylvania in 1739 and embarked on a lucrative private law practice. Guided by his taste for luxury and his pretensions to high social status, he purchased in July 1742 a 220-acre parcel of land on a commanding position on the west side of the Schuylkill, which he named Belmont [Fig. 1].[1] He immediately began to develop the property in a remarkably ambitious and sophisticated manner. Conceiving of Belmont as an Epicurean retreat, he designed a Palladian-style villa (only the second in America) and extensive pleasure gardens.[2] Belmont evidently established Peters’s reputation as an amateur gentleman-architect and he was often called upon to provide his Philadelphia neighbors with expertise in architectural matters. In 1743, while mulling plans for a new residence at Springettsbury, his country estate on the opposite side of the river from Belmont, Thomas Penn, the Proprietor of Pennsylvania, informed Peters, “I hope to have the pleasure ere long of visiting your Country Retirement and gaining something by your experience.”[3] Writing to Penn a few years later, the Philadelphia merchant Richard Hockley praised the plan Peters had drawn up for a townhouse as “a very compleat one, of the dimensions, and the best I think by far in this place and most convenient and commodious.”[4] Peters went on to supervise the construction of a ferry house on the Delaware River for Penn, and to advise Benjamin Chew on plans for a country house he intended to build in the Germantown neighborhood near Philadelphia.[5]

Peters’s introduction to the Penn family came through his younger brother, the Anglican Reverend Richard Peters (1704–1776), who had immigrated to Philadelphia in 1735 and secured Thomas Penn’s patronage soon after. William Peters provided legal services to the Penns and through their agency gained appointments to a number of profitable public offices, including Notary Public for Pennsylvania (1744), Register of the Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania (1744), and Justice of the Peace and of the Courts of Common Pleas, Quarter Sessions, and Orphans (1757).[6] Over the years, Thomas Penn became concerned by the degree to which building and landscaping projects at Belmont were distracting Peters from his official duties. In 1752, the Rev. Peters felt obliged to apologize for his brother’s extravagant expenditure of capital and attention at Belmont, acknowledging in a letter to Penn that William’s “country schemes had well night ruined him, & [the] hurt done to his circumstances by their expense was not half so great as that done by a dissipation of mind.” He nevertheless assured Penn that “now he is come to town & in full business I am in hopes he will do much good.”[7] Despite this reassurance, William Peters continued to devote himself to rural retirement at Belmont while neglecting his business in town, prompting Penn, in a letter of 1760, to make the pointed observation, “He may, I think fix some office hours, so as to have time for his Air, Exercise and Retirement.”[8]

Penn allowed William Peters to succeed his brother Richard as secretary of the Pennsylvania Land Office in 1760. Peters served in that capacity for five years, using his position to supplement his income and expand his property holdings by raising warrant and patent fees and purchasing land under false names.[9] This self-dealing led to a final rift with Penn, who dismissed Peters from office in 1765. Peters returned to England in 1768, settling in Knutsford, Cheshire.[10] He created a deed of trust leaving Belmont in the care of his eldest son, Richard Peters, to whom he legally transferred the estate and all his other Pennsylvania properties in 1786.[11] Peters continued to pursue his interest in horticulture after returning to England. In his 84th year, he sent parcels of flower seeds to his son and daughter in Philadelphia, informing them in a letter of January 8, 1787: “The seeds consist of an amazing variety of sorts, and if you are as fond of flowers as I am, they will afford you a great deal of pleasure and I shall be glad to hear from you how they succeed.”[12]

Robyn Asleson


Texts

“. . . went to Will: Peters’s house, having some small aquaintance with his wife who was at home with her Daughter Polly. they received us kindly in one wing of the House, after a while we passed thro’ a covered Passage to the large hall, well furnished, the top adorned with instruments of musick, coat of arms, crest, and other ornaments in Stucco, its sides by paintings and Statues in Bronze. from the Front of this hall you have a prospect bounded by the Jerseys, like a blueridge, and the Horison, a broad walk of english Cherre trys leads down to the river, the doors of the hous opening opposite admitt a prospect [of] the length of the garden thro’ a broad gravel walk, to a large hansome summer house in a grean, from these Windows down a Wisto terminated by an Obelisk, on the right you enter a Labarynth of hedge and low ceder with spruce, in the middle stands a Statue of Apollo, note: in the garden are the Statues of Dianna, Fame & Mercury, with urns. we left the garden for a wood cut into Visto’s, in the midst a chinese temple, for a summer house, one avenue gives a fine prospect of the City, with a Spy glass you discern the houses distinct, Hospital, & another looks to the Oblisk.”

Images


Notes

  1. Richard Peters Jr., “Belmont Mansion,” Proceedings of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia 30 (1925): 78–79, view on Zotero.
  2. Mark Reinberger, “Belmont: The Bourgeois Villa in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” Arris: Journal of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians 9 (1998): 23, view on Zotero.
  3. Thomas Penn to William Peters, August 22, 1743, quoted in Reinberger 1998, 17, view on Zotero. For the involvement of “Mr. Peters” in Penn’s plans for a projected residence at Springettsbury, see Richard Hockley to Thomas Penn, June 27, 1742, in Richard Hockley, “Selected Letters from the Letter-Book of Richard Hockley, of Philadelphia, 1739–1742 (Continued),” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 27 (1903): 435, view on Zotero.
  4. Richard Hockley to Thomas Penn, April 18, 1749, quoted in Reinberger 1998, 18, view on Zotero.
  5. Reinberger 1998, 18, view on Zotero.
  6. John Hill Martin, Martin’s Bench and Bar of Philadelphia: Together with Other Lists of Persons Appointed to Administer the Laws in the City and County of Philadelphia, and the Province and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Res Welsh & Co., Publishers, 1883), 9, 33–34, 45, view on Zotero.
  7. The Rev. Richard Peters to Thomas Penn, June 20, 1752, quoted in Reinberger 1998, 36n17, view on Zotero.
  8. Thomas Penn to the Rev. Richard Peters, November 15, 1760, quoted in Reinberger 1998, 27, view on Zotero.
  9. Donna B. Munger, Pennsylvania Land Records: A History and Guide for Research (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1991), 96, view on Zotero.
  10. John W. Jordan, ed., Colonial Families of Philadelphia, 2 vols. (New York: Lewis Publishing Company, 1911), 2:1107, view on Zotero.
  11. Nellie Peters Black, Richard Peters, His Ancestors and Descendents: 1810–1889 (Atlanta: Foote & Davies, 1904), 61, 91, view on Zotero.
  12. Black 1904, 36, view on Zotero.
  13. Hannah Callender Sansom, The Diary of Hannah Callender Sansom: Sense and Sensibility in the Age of the American Revolution, ed. Susan E. Klepp and Karin Wulf (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), view on Zotero.

A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts

National Gallery of Art, Washington