John Vanbrugh

From New World Encyclopedia

Sir John Vanbrugh in Godfrey Kneller's Kit-cat portrait, considered one of Kneller's finest portraits.

Sir John Vanbrugh (pronounced "Van'-bru") (January 24, 1664?–March 26, 1726) was an English architect and dramatist, perhaps best known as the designer of Blenheim Palace. He wrote two argumentative and outspoken Restoration comedies, The Relapse (1696) and The Provoked Wife (1697), which have become enduring stage favorites but originally occasioned much controversy.

Vanbrugh was in many senses a radical throughout his life. As a young man and a committed Whig, he was part of the scheme to overthrow James II, put William III on the throne and protect English parliamentary democracy, dangerous undertakings which landed him in the dreaded Bastille of Paris as a political prisoner. In his career as a playwright, he offended many sections of Restoration and eighteenth-century society, not only by the sexual explicitness of his plays, but also by their messages in defense of women's rights in marriage. He was attacked on both counts, and was one of the prime targets of Jeremy Collier's Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. In his architectural career, he created what came to be known as English Baroque. His architectural work was as bold and daring as his early political activism and marriage-themed plays, and jarred conservative opinions on the subject.

Early life

Vanbrugh was born in London, and grew up in Chester, where the family had been driven by the major outbreak of the plague in London in 1665. Vanbrugh's family background and youth, before he became a public figure, have been passed down through hearsay and anecdote. Kerry Downes has shown in his well-researched modern biography (1987) that even the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Dictionary of National Biography repeat eighteenth- and nineteenth century traditions which were originally offered as guesses but have hardened into "fact" in the process of transmission. This accounts for several discrepancies between the entries in these encyclopædias and the following narrative, which is based on the findings of Kerry Downes,[1] and Frank McCormick.[2] Downes is skeptical of earlier historians' claims of a lower middle-class background, and shows that an eighteenth-century suggestion that his father Giles Vanbrugh "may have been a sugar-baker" has been misunderstood. "Sugar-baker" implies wealth, as the term refers not to a maker of sweets but to an owner of a sugar house, a factory for the refining of raw sugar from the Barbados. Sugar refining would normally be combined with sugar trading, which was a lucrative business. Downes' example of one sugar baker's house in Liverpool being estimated to bring in £40,000 a year in trade from the Barbados throws a different light on Vanbrugh's social background than the picture of a backstreet Chester sweetshop which is painted by Leigh Hunt in 1840 and reflected in many later accounts.

How Vanbrugh spent the years from age 18 to 22 (after leaving school) was long something of a mystery, with the baseless suggestion sometimes made that he had been studying architecture in France (stated as fact in the Dictionary of National Biography). Recently, however, Robert Williams proved in an article in the Times Literary Supplement ("Vanbrugh's Lost Years," September 3, 1999) that in fact Vanbrugh had been in India for part of this time, working for the East India Company at their trading post in Surat, in Gujarat. Over the rest of his life, Vanbrugh apparently never mentioned this fact in writing. Scholars debate whether evidence of his exposure to Indian architecture may be detected in any of his later buildings.

The picture of a well-connected youth is reinforced by the fact that Vanbrugh in 1686 took up an officer's commission in his distant relative the Earl of Huntingdon's regiment. Since commissions were in the gift of the commanding officer, Vanbrugh's entry as an officer shows that he did have the kind of upscale family network that was then essential to a young man starting out in life.

It is worth noting, however, that in spite of the distant noble relatives and the sugar trade, Vanbrugh never in later life possessed any capital for business ventures such as the Haymarket Theatre, but always had to rely on loans and backers. Giles Vanbrugh's need to support twelve children and set them up in life might explain the debts that were to plague John all his life.

Political activism and the Bastille

From 1686, Vanbrugh was working undercover, playing a role in bringing about the armed invasion by William of Orange, the deposition of James II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, demonstrating an intense early identification with the Whig cause of parliamentary democracy, with which he was to remain affiliated all his life. Returning from bringing William messages at The Hague, Vanbrugh was arrested at Calais on a charge of espionage (which Downes concludes was trumped-up) in September 1688, two months before William invaded England. Vanbrugh remained in prison in France for four and a half years, part of the time in the Bastille, before being released in exchange for a French political prisoner. His life is sharply bisected by this prison experience, which he entered at age 24 and emerged from at 29, after having spent, as Downes puts it, half his adult life in captivity. It seems to have left him with a lasting distaste for the French political system but also with a taste for the comic dramatists and the architecture of France.

The often-repeated claim that Vanbrugh wrote part of his comedy The Provoked Wife in the Bastille is based on allusions in a couple of much later memoirs and is regarded with some doubt by modern scholars.[2] After his release from the Bastille, he had to spend three months in Paris, free to move around but unable to leave the country, and with every opportunity to see an architecture "unparalleled in England for scale, ostentation, richness, taste and sophistication."[1] He was allowed to return to England in 1693, and took part in a naval battle against the French in Camaret Bay in 1694. At some point in the mid-1690s, it is not known exactly when, he exchanged army life for London and the London stage.

Public life


Vanbrugh's London career was diverse and varied, comprising playwriting, architectural design, and attempts to combine these two overarching interests.

The Kit-Cat Club

Vanbrugh was a committed Whig and member of the Whig Kit-Cat Club — even its most popular and beloved member — in line with the charm of personality and talent for friendship which his contemporaries mention over and over again. The Club is best known today as an early eighteenth-century social gathering point for culturally and politically prominent Whigs, including many artists and writers (William Congreve, Joseph Addison, Godfrey Kneller) and politicians (the Duke of Marlborough, Charles Seymour, the Earl of Burlington, Thomas Pelham-Holles, Sir Robert Walpole) and Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham who gave Vanbrugh several architectural commissions at Stowe.

Politically, the Club promoted the Whig objectives of a strong Parliament, a limited monarchy, resistance to France, and the Protestant succession to the throne. Yet the Kit-Cats always presented their club as more a matter of dining and conviviality, and this reputation has been successfully relayed to posterity. Downes suggests, however, that the Club's origins go back to before the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and that its political importance was much greater before it went public in 1700, in calmer and more Whiggish times. Downes proposes a role for an early Kit-Cat grouping in the armed invasion by William of Orange and the Glorious Revolution. Horace Walpole, son of Kit-Cat Sir Robert Walpole, claims that the respectable middle-aged Club members generally mentioned as "a set of wits" were originally "in reality the patriots that saved Britain," in other words were the active force behind the Glorious Revolution itself. Secret groups tend to be poorly documented, and this sketch of the pre-history of the Club cannot be proven, but as we have seen, young Vanbrugh was indeed in 1688 part of a secret network working for William's invasion. If the roots of the Club go back that far, it is tempting to speculate that Vanbrugh in joining the club was not merely becoming one of a convivial London "set of wits" but was also linking up with old friends and co-conspirators. A hero of the cause who had done time in French prison for it, could have been confident of a warm welcome.

The Haymarket theatre

The Queen's Theatre, Haymarket

In 1703, Vanbrugh started buying land and signing backers for the construction of a new theater in the Haymarket, designed by himself and intended for the use of an actors' cooperative (see The Provoked Wife below) led by Thomas Betterton. Vanbrugh and his associate William Congreve hoped by this enterprise to improve the chances of legitimate theater in London, which was under threat from more colorful types of entertainment such as opera, juggling, pantomime (introduced by John Rich), animal acts, traveling dance troupes, and famous visiting Italian singers. They also hoped to make a profit, and Vanbrugh optimistically bought up the actors' company, making himself sole owner. He was now bound to pay salaries to the actors and, as it turned out, to manage the theater, a notorious tightrope act for which he had no experience. The often repeated rumor that the acoustics of the building Vanbrugh had designed were bad is exaggerated (see Milhous), but the more practical Congreve had become anxious to extricate himself from the project, and Vanbrugh was left spreading himself extremely thin, running a theater and simultaneously overseeing the building of Blenheim, a project which after June 1705 often took him out of town.

Unsurprisingly under these circumstances, Vanbrugh's management of the Queen's Theatre in the Haymarket showed "numerous signs of confusion, inefficiency, missed opportunities, and bad judgment."[3] Having burned his fingers on theater management, Vanbrugh too extricated himself, expensively, by selling the business in 1708, though without ever collecting much of the putative price. He had put a lot of money, his own and borrowed, into the theater company, which he was never to recover. It was noted as remarkable by contemporaries that he continued to pay the actors' salaries fully and promptly while they were working for him, just as he always paid the workmen he had hired for construction work; shirking such responsibilities was close to being standard practice in early 18th-century England. Vanbrugh himself never seems to have pursued those who owed him money, and throughout his life his finances can at best be described as precarious.

The College of Arms

Vanbrugh's introduction and advancement in the College of Arms, remain controversial. On 21 June 1703 the obsolete office of Carlisle Herald was revived for Vanbrugh. This appointment was followed by a promotion to the post of Clarenceux King of Arms in March of 1704. In 1725 he sold this office to Knox Ward and he told a friend he had "got leave to dispose in earnest, of a place I got in jest".[4] His colleagues' opposition to an ill-gotten appointment ought to have been directed to Lord Carlisle, who as Deputy Earl Marshal, arranged both appointments and against whose wishes they were powerless. Vanbrugh went on to make more friends than enemies at the College, however. The pageantry of state occasions appealed to his theatrical sense, his duties were not difficult, and he appears to have performed them well. In the opinion of a modern herald and historian, although the appointment was "incongruous," he was "possibly the most distinguished man who has ever worn a herald's tabard."[5] In May of 1706 Lord Halifax and Vanbrugh—representing the octogenarian Garter King of Arms, Sir Henry St George—led a delegation to Hanover to confer the Order of the Garter on Prince George.

Marriage and death

In 1719, at St Lawrence Church, York, Vanbrugh married Henrietta Maria Yarborough of Heslington Hall, aged 26 (compared to his age of 55). In spite of the age difference, this was by all accounts a happy marriage, which produced two sons. Unlike that of the rake heroes and fops of his plays, Vanbrugh's personal life was without scandal.

Vanbrugh died "of an asthma" in 1726 in the modest town house designed by him in 1703 out of the ruins of Whitehall Palace and satirized by Swift as "the goose pie." His married life, however, was mostly spent at Greenwich (then not considered part of London at all) in the house on Maze Hill now known as Vanbrugh Castle, a miniature Scottish tower house designed by Vanbrugh in the earliest stages of his career.


Actor Colley Cibber's comedy Love's Last Shift, or Virtue Rewarded inspired Vanbrugh to write The Relapse, or, Virtue in Danger.
Thomas Betterton, Sir John Brute in The Provoked Wife. Betterton's acting ability was lavishly praised by Samuel Pepys, Alexander Pope, Richard Steele and Colley Cibber.
Elizabeth Barry was a celebrated tragedienne who brought depth to Lady Brute in Vanbrugh's comedy The Provoked Wife.

Vanbrugh arrived in London at a time of scandal and internal drama at London's only theater company, as a long-running conflict between pinchpenny management and disgruntled actors came to a head and the actors walked out. A new comedy staged with the makeshift remainder of the company in January 1696, Colley Cibber's Love's Last Shift, had a final scene that to Vanbrugh's critical mind demanded a sequel, and he threw himself into the fray by providing it.

The Relapse

Cibber's Love's Last Shift

Colley Cibber's notorious tear-jerker Love's Last Shift, Or, Virtue Rewarded was written and staged in the eye of a theatrical storm. London's only and mismanaged theater company, known as the United Company, had split in two in March 1695 when the senior actors began operating their own acting cooperative, and the next season was one of cutthroat rivalry between the two companies.

Cibber, an inconspicuous young actor still employed by the parent company, seized this moment of unique demand for new plays and launched his career on two fronts by writing a play with a big, flamboyant part for himself: the Frenchified fop Sir Novelty Fashion. Backed up by Cibber's own uninhibited performance, Sir Novelty delighted the audiences. In the serious part of Love's Last Shift, wifely patience is tried by an out-of-control Restoration rake husband, and the perfect wife is celebrated and rewarded in a climactic finale where the cheating husband kneels to her and expresses the depth of his repentance.

Love's Last Shift has not been staged again since the early eighteenth century and is read only by the most dedicated scholars, who sometimes express distaste for its businesslike combination of four explicit acts of sex and rakishness with one of sententious reform (see Hume). If Cibber indeed was deliberately attempting to appeal simultaneously to rakish and respectable Londoners, it worked: the play was a great box-office hit.

Sequel: The Relapse

Vanbrugh's witty sequel The Relapse, Or, Virtue in Danger, offered to the United Company six weeks later, questions the justice of women's position in marriage at the time. He sends new sexual temptations in the way of not only the reformed husband but also the patient wife, and allows them to react in more credible and less predictable ways than in their original context, lending the flat characters from Love's Last Shift a dimension that at least some critics are willing to consider psychological.[6]

In a trickster subplot, Vanbrugh provides the more traditional Restoration attraction of an overly well-dressed and exquisite fop, Lord Foppington, a brilliant re-creation of Cibber's Sir Novelty Fashion in Love's Last Shift (Sir Novelty has simply in The Relapse bought himself the title of "Lord Foppington" through the corrupt system of Royal title sales). Critics of Restoration comedy are unanimous in declaring Lord Foppington "the greatest of all Restoration fops,"[7] by virtue of being not merely laughably affected, but also "brutal, evil, and smart."[6]

The Relapse, however, came very close to not being performed at all. The United Company had lost all its senior performers, and had great difficulty in finding and keeping actors of sufficient skills for the large cast required by The Relapse. Members of that cast had to be kept from defecting to the rival actors' cooperative, had to be "seduced" (as the legal term was) back when they did defect, and had to be blandished into attending rehearsals which dragged out into ten months and brought the company to the threshold of bankruptcy. "They have no company at all," reports a contemporary letter in November, "and unless a new play comes out on Saturday revives their reputation, they must break." That new play, The Relapse, did turn out a tremendous success that saved the company, not least by virtue of Colley Cibber again bringing down the house with his second impersonation of Lord Foppington. "This play (the Relapse)," writes Cibber in his autobiography 40 years later, "from its new and easy Turn of Wit, had great Success."

The Provoked Wife

Vanbrugh's second original comedy, The Provoked Wife, followed soon after, performed by the rebel actors' company. This play is different in tone from the largely farcical The Relapse, and adapted to the greater acting skills of the rebels. Vanbrugh had good reason to offer his second play to the new company, which had got off to a brilliant start by premièring Congreve's Love For Love, the greatest London box-office success for years. The actors' cooperative boasted the established star performers of the age, and Vanbrugh tailored The Provoked Wife to their specialties. While The Relapse had been robustly phrased to be suitable for amateurs and minor acting talents, he could count on versatile professionals like Thomas Betterton, Elizabeth Barry, and the rising young star Anne Bracegirdle to do justice to characters of depth and nuance.

The Provoked Wife is a comedy, but Elizabeth Barry who played the abused wife was especially famous as a tragic actress, and for her power of "moving the passions," that is, moving an audience to pity and tears. Barry and the younger Bracegirdle had often worked together as a tragic/comic heroine pair to bring audiences the typically tragic/comic rollercoaster experience of Restoration plays. Vanbrugh takes advantage of this schema and these actresses to deepen audience sympathy for the unhappily married Lady Brute, even as she fires off her witty ripostes. In the intimate conversational dialogue between Lady Brute and her niece Bellinda (Bracegirdle), and especially in the star part of Sir John Brute the brutish husband (Betterton), which was hailed as one of the peaks of Thomas Betterton's remarkable career, The Provoked Wife is something as unusual as a Restoration problem play. The premise of the plot, that a wife trapped in an abusive marriage might consider either leaving it or taking a lover, outraged some sections of Restoration society.

Changing audience taste

In 1698, Vanbrugh's argumentative and sexually frank plays were singled out for special attention by Jeremy Collier in his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage,[8] particularly for their failure to impose exemplary morality by appropriate rewards and punishments in the fifth act. Vanbrugh laughed at these charges and published a joking reply, which accused the clergyman Collier of being more sensitive to unflattering portrayals of the clergy than to real irreligion. However, rising public opinion was already on Collier's side. The intellectual and sexually explicit Restoration comedy style was becoming less and less acceptable to audiences and was soon to be replaced by a drama of sententious morality. Colley Cibber's Love's Last Shift, with its reformed rake and sentimental reconciliation scene, can be seen as a forerunner of this drama.

Although Vanbrugh continued to work for the stage in many ways, he produced no more original plays. With the change in audience taste away from Restoration comedy, he turned his creative energies from original composition to dramatic adaptation/translation, theater management, and architecture.


As an architect (or surveyor, as the term then was) Vanbrugh is thought to have had no formal training (compare Early life above). His inexperience was compensated by his unerring eye for perspective and detail and his close working relationship with Nicholas Hawksmoor. Hawksmoor, a former clerk of Sir Christopher Wren, was to be Vanbrugh's collaborator in many of his most ambitious projects, including Castle Howard and Blenheim. During his almost thirty years as a practicing architect Vanbrugh designed and worked on numerous buildings. More often than not his work was a rebuild or remodel, such as that at Kimbolton Castle, where Vanbrugh had to follow the instructions of his patron. Consequently these houses, which often claim Vanbrugh as their architect, do not typify Vanbrugh's own architectural concepts and ideas.

Though Vanbrugh is best known in connection with stately houses, the parlous state of London's eighteenth-century streets did not escape his attention. In the London Journal of March 16, 1722–23, James Boswell comments:

"We are informed that Sir John Vanbrugh, in his scheme for new paving the cities of London and Westminster, among other things, proposes a tax on all gentlemen's coaches, to stop all channels in the s"eet, and to carry all the water off by drains and common sewers under ground.

Vanbrugh's chosen style was baroque, which had been spreading across Europe during the seventeenth century promoted by, among others, Bernini and Le Vau. The first baroque country house built in England was Chatsworth House designed by William Talman three years before Castle Howard. In the race for the commission of Castle Howard, the untrained and untried Vanbrugh astonishingly managed to out-charm and out-clubman the professional but less socially adept Talman and to persuade the Earl of Carlisle to give the great opportunity to him instead.[1] Seizing it, Vanbrugh instigated European baroque's metamorphosis into a subtle, almost understated version that became known as English baroque. Three of Vanbrugh's designs act as milestones for evaluating this process:-

  1. Castle Howard, commissioned in 1699;
  2. Blenheim Palace, commissioned in 1704;
  3. Seaton Delaval Hall, begun in 1718.

Work in progress on each of these projects overlapped into the next, providing a natural progression of thoughts and style.

Castle Howard

Vanbrugh's south facade of Castle Howard.

Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle, a fellow member of the Kit-Cat Club, commissioned Vanbrugh in 1699 to design his mansion, often described as England's first truly baroque building. The baroque style at Castle Howard is the most European that Vanbrugh ever used.

Castle Howard, with its immense corridors in segmental colonnades leading from the main entrance block to the flanking wings, its center crowned by a great domed tower complete with cupola, is very much in the school of classic European baroque. It combined aspects of design that had only appeared occasionally, if at all, in English architecture: John Webb's Greenwich Palace, Wren's unexecuted design for Greenwich, which like Castle Howard was dominated by a domed center block, and of course Talman's Chatsworth. A possible inspiration for Castle Howard was also Vaux-le-Vicomte in France.

The interiors are extremely dramatic, the Great Hall rising 80 feet (24 m) into the cupola. Scagliola, and Corinthian columns abound, and galleries linked by soaring arches give the impression of an opera stage-set — doubtless the intention of the architect.

Castle Howard was acclaimed a success. This fantastical building, unparalleled in England, with its facades and roofs decorated by pilasters, statuary, and flowing ornamental carving, ensured that baroque became an overnight success. While the greater part of Castle Howard was inhabited and completed by 1709, the finishing touches were to continue for much of Vanbrugh's lifetime. The west wing was finally completed after Vanbrugh's death.

The acclaim of the work at Castle Howard led to Vanbrugh's most famous commission, architect for Blenheim Palace.

Blenheim Palace

The West facade of Blenheim Palace ("Vanbrugh's castle air") shows the unique severe towering stone belvederes ornamenting the skyline.

The Duke of Marlborough's forces defeated King Louis XIV's army at Blenheim, a village on the Danube in 1704. Marlborough's reward, from a grateful nation, was to be a splendid country seat, and the Duke himself chose fellow Kit-Cat John Vanbrugh to be the architect. Work began on the palace in 1705.

Blenheim Palace was conceived to be not only a grand country house, but a national monument. Consequently, the light baroque style used at Castle Howard would have been unsuitable for what is in effect a war memorial. The house had to display strength and military glory. It is in truth more castle, or citadel, than palace. The qualities of the building are best illustrated by the massive East Gate (illustration, below, left), set in the curtain wall of the service block, which resembles an impregnable entrance to a walled city. Few realise it also serves as water tower for the palace, thus confounding those of Vanbrugh's critics who accused him of impracticability.

Blenheim, the largest non-royal domestic building in England, consists of three blocks, the center containing the living and state rooms, and two flanking rectangular wings both built around a central courtyard: one contains the stables, and the other the kitchens, laundries, and storehouses. If Castle Howard was the first truly baroque building in England, then Blenheim Palace is the most definitive. While Castle Howard is a dramatic assembly of restless masses, Blenheim is altogether of a more solid construction, relying on tall slender windows and monumental statuary on the roofs to lighten the mass of yellow stone.

The suite of state rooms placed on the piano nobile were designed to be overpowering and magnificent displays, rather than warm, or comfortable. Cosy, middle class comfort was not the intention at Versailles, the great palace of Marlborough's foe, and it was certainly not deemed a consideration in the palace built to house the conqueror of Versailles' master.

As was common in the 18th century, personal comfort was sacrificed to perspective. Windows were to adorn the facades, as well as light the interior. Blenheim was designed as a theater piece from the 67 foot (20 m) high great hall, leading to the huge frescoed saloon, all designed on an axis with the 134 foot (41 m) high column of victory in the grounds, with the trees planted in the battle positions of Marlborough's soldiers. Over the south portico (illustrated right), itself a massive and dense construction of piers and columns, definitely not designed in the Palladian manner for elegant protection from the sun, a huge bust of Louis XIV is forced to look down on the splendors and rewards of his conqueror. If this placement and design was an ornamental feature created by Vanbrugh, or an ironic joke by Marlborough, is not known. However, as an architectural composition it is a unique example of baroque ornament.

At Blenheim, Vanbrugh developed baroque from the mere ornamental to a denser, more solid, form, where the massed stone became the ornament. The great arched gates and the huge solid portico were ornament in themselves, and the whole mass was considered rather than each facade.

Seaton Delaval Hall

Seaton Delaval Hall – corps de logis viewed from the north

Seaton Delaval Hall was Vanbrugh's final work, this northern, seemingly rather bleak country house is considered his finest architectural masterpiece; by this stage in his architectural career Vanbrugh was a master of baroque, he had taken this form of architecture not only beyond the flamboyant continental baroque of Castle Howard, but also past the more severe but still decorated Blenheim. ornament was almost disguised: a recess or a pillar was not placed for support, but to create a play of light or shadow. The silhouette of the building was of equal, if not greater, importance than the interior layout. In every aspect of the house, subtlety was the keyword.

Built between 1718 and 1728 for Admiral George Delaval, it replaced the existing house on the site. It is possible that the design of Seaton Delaval was influenced by Palladio's Villa Foscari (sometimes known as "La Malcontenta"), built circa 1555. Both have rusticated facades and similar demilune windows over a non-porticoed entrance. Even the large attic gable at Villa Foscari hints at the clerestory of Seaton's great hall.

The design concept Vanbrugh drew up was similar to that employed at Castle Howard and Blenheim: a center block between two arcaded and pedimented wings. However, Seaton Delaval was to be on a much smaller scale. Work began in 1718 and continued for ten years. The building is an advancement on the style of Blenheim, rather than the earlier castle Howard. The principal block, or corps de logis, containing, as at Blenheim and Castle Howard, the principal state and living room, forms the center of a three-sided court. Towers crowned by balustrades and pinnacles give the house something of what Vanbrugh called his castle air.

Seaton Delaval is one of the few houses Vanbrugh designed alone without the aid of Nicholas Hawksmoor. The sobriety of their joint work has sometimes been attributed to Hawksmoor, and yet Seaton Delaval is a very sombre house indeed. Whereas Castle Howard could successfully be set down in Dresden or Würzburg, the austerity and solidity of Seaton Delaval firmly belongs in Northumberland landscape. Vanbrugh, in the final stage in his career, was fully liberated from the rules of the architects of a generation earlier. The rustic stonework is used for the entire facade, including on the entrance facade, the pairs of twin columns supporting little more than a stone cornice. The twin columns are severe and utilitarian, and yet ornament, as they provide no structural use. This is part of the furtive quality of the baroque of Seaton Delaval: the ornamental appears as a display of strength and mass.

The likewise severe, but perfectly proportioned, garden facade has at its center a four columned, balcony-roofed portico. Here the slight fluting of the stone columns seems almost excessive ornament. As at Blenheim, the central block is dominated by the raised clerestory of the great hall, adding to the drama of the building's silhouette, but unlike Vanbrugh's other great houses, no statuary decorates the roof-scape here. The decoration is provided solely by a simple balustrade hiding the roof line, and chimneys disguised as finials to the balustrading of the low towers. Vanbrugh was now truly a master of the baroque. The massing of the stone, the colonnades of the flanking wings, the heavy stonework and intricate recesses all create light and shade which is ornament in itself.

Among architects, only Vanbrugh could have taken for his inspiration one of Palladio's masterpieces, and while retaining the humanist values of the building, alter and adapt it, into a unique form of baroque unseen elsewhere in Europe.

Architectural reputation

Vanbrugh's prompt success as an architect can be attributed to his friendships with the influential of the day. No less than five of his architectural patrons were fellow members of the Kit-cat club. In 1702, through the influence of Charles Howard, Earl of Carlisle, Vanbrugh was appointed comptroller of the Royal Works (now the Board of Works, where several of his designs may still be seen). In 1703, he was appointed commissioner of Greenwich Hospital, which was under construction at this time, and succeeded Wren as the official architect (or Surveyor), while Hawksmoor was appointed Site Architect. Vanbrugh's small but conspicuous final changes to the nearly completed building were considered a fine interpretation of Wren's original plans and intentions. Thus what was intended as an infirmary and hostel for destitute retired sailors was transformed into a magnificent national monument. His work here is said to have impressed both Queen Anne and her government, and is directly responsible for his subsequent success.

Vanbrugh's reputation still suffers from accusations of extravagance, impracticability and a bombastic imposition of his own will on his clients. Ironically, all of these unfounded charges derive from Blenheim — Vanbrugh's selection as architect of Blenheim was never completely popular. The Duchess, the formidable Sarah Churchill, particularly wanted Sir Christopher Wren. However, eventually a warrant signed by the Earl of Godolphin, the parliamentary treasurer, appointed Vanbrugh, and outlined his remit. Sadly, nowhere did this warrant mention Queen, or Crown. This error provided the get-out clause for the state when the costs and political infighting escalated.

Blenheim Palace The great court, and state entrance to the palace. The Duchess of Marlborough felt the building was extravagant.

Though Parliament had voted funds for the building of Blenheim, no exact sum had ever been fixed upon, and certainly no provision had been made for inflation. Almost from the outset, funds had been intermittent. Queen Anne paid some of them, but with growing reluctance and lapses, following her frequent altercations with her one time best friend, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. After the Duchess's final argument with the Queen in 1712, all state money ceased and work came to a halt. £220,000 had already been spent and £45,000 was owing to workmen. The Marlboroughs went into exile on the continent, and did not return until after Queen Anne's death in 1714.

The day after the Queen's death the Marlboroughs returned, and were reinstated in favor at the court of the new King George I. The 64-year-old Duke now decided to complete the project at his own expense; in 1716 work re-started and Vanbrugh was left to rely entirely upon the means of the Duke of Marlborough himself. Already discouraged and upset by the reception the palace was receiving from the Whig factions, the final blow for Vanbrugh came when the Duke was incapacitated in 1717 by a severe stroke, and the thrifty (and hostile) Duchess took control. The Duchess blamed Vanbrugh entirely for the growing extravagance of the palace, and its general design: that her husband and government had approved them, she discounted. (In fairness to her, it must be mentioned that the Duke of Marlborough had contributed £60,000 to the initial cost, which, supplemented by Parliament, should have built a monumental house.) Following a meeting with the Duchess, Vanbrugh left the building site in a rage, insisting that the new masons, carpenters and craftsmen were inferior to those he had employed. The master craftsmen he had patronized, however, such as Grinling Gibbons, refused to work for the lower rates paid by the Marlboroughs. The craftsmen brought in by the Duchess, under the guidance of furniture designer James Moore, completed the work in perfect imitation of the greater masters, so perhaps there was fault and intransigence on both sides in this famed argument.

Vanbrugh was deeply distressed by the turn of events. The arguments and resulting rumors had damaged his reputation, and the palace he had nurtured like a child was forbidden to him. In 1719, while the duchess was "not at home," Vanbrugh was able to view the palace in secret; but when he and his wife, with the Earl of Carlisle, visited the completed Blenheim as members of the viewing public in 1725, they were refused admission to even enter the park. The palace had been completed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.

That Vanbrugh's work at Blenheim has been the subject of criticism can largely be blamed on those, including the Duchess, who failed to understand the chief reason for its construction: to celebrate a martial triumph. In the achievement of this remit, Vanbrugh was as triumphant as was Marlborough on the field of battle.

After Vanbrugh's death Abel Evans suggested this as his epitaph:

Under this stone, reader, survey
Dead Sir John Vanbrugh's house of clay.
Lie heavy on him, Earth! For he
Laid many heavy loads on thee!

Throughout the Georgian period reaction to Vanburgh's architecture varied, Voltaire described Blenheim Palace as "a great mass of stone with neither charm nor taste," in 1766 Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield described the Roman amphitheater at Nimes as "Ugly and clumsy enough to have been the work of Vanbrugh if it had been in England." In 1772 Horace Walpole described Castle Howard thus "Nobody had informed me that I should at one view see a palace, a town, a fortified city, temples on high places, woods worthy of being each a metropolis of the Druids, vales connected to hills by other woods, the noblest lawn in the world fenced by half the horizon, and a mausoleum that would tempt one to be buried alive; in short I have seen gigantic palaces before, but never a sublime one." In 1773 Robert Adam and James Adam in the preface to their 'Works in Architecture' described Vanbrugh's buildings as 'so crowded with barbarisms and absurdities, and so born down by their own preposterous weight, that none but the discerning can separate their merits from their defects." In 1786 Sir Joshua Reynolds wrote in his 13th Discourse " the buildings of Vanbrugh, who was a poet as well as an architect, there is a greater display of imagination, than we shall find perhaps in any other." In 1796 Uvedale Price described Blenheim as "uniting the beauty and magnificence of Grecian architecture, the picturesqueness of Gothic, and the massive grandeur of a castle." In Sir John Soane's 5th Royal Academy lecture of 1809 praised Vanbrugh's "bold flights of irregular fancy" and called him "the Shakespeare of architects."

List of Architectural Works

  1. Castle Howard 1699 west wing designed by Sir Thomas Robinson only completed in early nineteenth century.
  2. The Orangery Kensington Palace 1704.
  3. The Queen's Theatre, Haymarket 1704–1705 (demolished).
  4. Blenheim Palace 1705–1722 stable court never completed.
  5. Grand Bridge, Blenheim 1708–1722
  6. Kimbolton Castle 1708–1719 remodelled the building.
  7. Demolished part of Audley End and designed new Grand Staircase 1708
  8. Claremont House 1708 then known as Chargate, rebuilt to the designs of Henry Holland.
  9. Kings Weston House 1710–1714.
  10. Grimsthorpe Castle 1715–1730 only the north side of the courtyard was rebuilt.
  11. Eastbury Park 1713–1738 demolished except for Kitchen Wing, completed by Roger Morris who amended Vanbrugh's design.
  12. Morpeth Town Hall 1714.
  13. The Belvedere Claremont Landscape Garden 1715.
  14. The Great Kitchen St James's Palace 1716–1717 (demolished).
  15. Completion of State rooms Hampton Court Palace 1716–1718.
  16. Vanbrugh Castle 1718, the architect's own house in Greenwich, also houses for other members of his family (none survive).
  17. Stowe, Buckinghamshire 1720, added north portico, also several temples and follies in the garden up until his death.
  18. Seaton Delaval Hall 1720–1728.
  19. Lumley Castle 1722, remodelling work.
  20. Newcastle Pew Old Church Esher 1724
  21. Temple of the Four Winds, Castle Howard 1725–1728.
  22. The Vanbrugh walls in Claremont Estate Esher, surrounding several houses. One of which was Kinfauns or High Walls - owned by George Harrison, member of the Beatles.

Attributed works include:

  1. Ordnance Board Building Woolwich 1716–1719.
  2. Barracks Berwick-upon-Tweed 1717–1719.
  3. The Great Store Chatham Dockyard 1717 (demolished).
  4. The Gateway Chatham Dockyard 1720.


Vanbrugh is remembered today for his vast contribution to British culture, theater, and architecture. An immediate dramatic legacy was found among his papers after his sudden death, the three-act comedy fragment A Journey to London. Vanbrugh had told his old friend Colley Cibber that he intended in this play to question traditional marriage roles even more radically than in the plays of his youth, and end it with a marriage falling irreconcilably apart. The unfinished manuscript, today available in Vanbrugh's Collected Works, depicts a country family traveling to London and falling prey to its sharpers and temptations, while a London wife drives her patient husband to despair with her gambling and her consorting with the demi-monde of con men and half-pay officers. As with The Relapse at the outset of Vanbrugh's dramatic career, Colley Cibber again became involved, and this time he had last word. Cibber, by then poet laureate and successful actor-manager, completed Vanbrugh's manuscript under the title of The Provoked Husband (1728) and gave it a happy and sententious ending in which the provocative wife repents and is reconciled: a eulogy of marriage which was the opposite of Vanbrugh's declared intention to end his last and belated "Restoration comedy" with marital break-up. Cibber considered this projected outcome to be "too severe for Comedy," and such severity was in fact rarely to be seen on the English stage before Ibsen.

The role of Sir John Brute in The Provoked Wife became one of David Garrick's most famous roles.

On the eighteenth-century stage, Vanbrugh's Relapse and Provoked Wife were only considered possible to perform in bowdlerized versions, but as such, they remained popular. Throughout Colley Cibber's long and successful acting career, audiences continued to demand to see him as Lord Foppington in The Relapse, while Sir John Brute in The Provoked Wife became, after being an iconic role for Thomas Betterton, one of David Garrick's most famous roles. In the present day, The Relapse, now again to be seen uncut, remains a favorite play.

With the completion of Castle Howard English baroque came into fashion overnight. It had brought together the isolated and varied instances of monumental design, by, among others, Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren. Vanbrugh thought of masses, volume and perspective in a way that his predecessors had not.

He also had the unusual skill, for an architect, of delivering the goods that his clients required. His reputation has suffered because of his famed disagreements with the Duchess of Marlborough, yet, one must remember his original client was the British Nation, not the Duchess, and the nation wanted a monument and celebration of victory, and that is what Vanbrugh gave the nation.

His influence on successive architects is incalculable. Nicholas Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh's friend and collaborator on so many projects continued to design many London churches for ten years after Vanbrugh's death. Vanbrugh's pupil and cousin the architect Edward Lovett Pearce rose to become one of Ireland's greatest architects. His influence in Yorkshire can also be seen in the work of the amateur architect William Wakefield who designed several buildings in the county that show Vanbrugh's influence.

Vanbrugh is remembered throughout Britain, by inns, street names, a university college (York) and schools named in his honor, but one only has to wander through London, or the English country-side dotted with their innumerable country houses, to see the ever present influence of his architecture.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Kerry Downes, Sir John Vanbrugh: A Biography (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987, ISBN 978-0312018252).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Frank McCormick, Sir John Vanbrugh: The Playwright as Architect (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991, ISBN 978-0271007236).
  3. Judith Milhous, Thomas Betterton and the Management of Lincoln's Inn Fields 1695—1708 (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979, ISBN 978-0809309061).
  4. John Vanbrugh and Geoffrey Webb, The Complete Works of Sir John Vanbrugh Volume 4: The letters (London: Nonesuch Press, 1928), 170.
  5. Anthony Richard Wagner, Heralds of England: A history of the Office and College of Arms (London: H.M.S.O., 1967), 326.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Robert D. Hume, The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0198117995).
  7. Bonamy Dobrée, "Introduction" to The Complete Works of Sir John Vanbrugh, vol. 1 (Bloomsbury: The Nonesuch Press, 1927).
  8. Jeremy Collier, Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (original 1698, 1700) reprint ed. (Ams. Press, Inc., 1974, ISBN 0404016197).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cibber, Colley; An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber. London: Dent; New York: Dutton, 1979. ISBN 978-0460006682
  • Collier, Jeremy. Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. (original 1698, 1700) reprint ed. Ams. Press, Inc., 1974. ISBN 0404016197
  • Cordner, Michael. "Playwright versus priest: profanity and the wit of Restoration comedy." In Deborah Payne Fisk, ed., The Cambridge Companion to English Restoration Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 9780521588126
  • Cropplestone, Trewin. World Architecture. London: B. Trodd, 1991. ISBN 9781853610752
  • Dal Lago, Adalbert. Ville Antiche. Milan: Fratelli Fabbri, 1966. OCLC 11499020
  • Dobrée, Bonamy. Introduction to The Complete Works of Sir John Vanbrugh, vol. 1. Bloomsbury: The Nonesuch Press. 1927. OCLC 631732
  • Downes, Kerry. Sir John Vanbrugh: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987. ISBN 978-0312018252
  • Green, David. Blenheim Palace. London: Country Life, 1951.
  • Halliday, E. E. An Illustrated Cultural History of England. New York: Crescent Books, (original 1967) 1981. ISBN 978-0517341704
  • Harlin, Robert. Historic Houses. London: Condé Nast, 1969.
  • Hume, Robert D. The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1990. ISBN 978-0198117995
  • Hunt, Leigh, ed. The Dramatic Works of Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh and Farquhar. London, E. Moxon, 1851. OCLC 2834308
  • Milhous, Judith; Thomas Betterton and the Management of Lincoln's Inn Fields 1695—1708. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979. ISBN 978-0809309061
  • McCormick, Frank. Sir John Vanbrugh: The Playwright as Architect. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press. 1991. ISBN 978-0271007236
  • Vanbrugh, John. The Complete Works, vols 1–5, ed. Bonamy Dobée and Geoffrey Webb. Bloomsbury: The Nonesuch Press, 1927.
  • Wagner, Anthony Richard. Heralds of England: a history of the Office and College of Arms. London: H.M.S.O., 1967. OCLC 1178344
  • Watkin, David. English Architecture. Oxford University Press, 1979. ISBN 978-0195201482
  • Whistler, Laurence. Sir John Vanbrugh, Architect & Dramatist, 1664–1726. Millwood, NY: Kraus Reprint Co., 1978. ISBN 978-0527958503

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.


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