Sir John Vanbrugh

Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), English architect and dramatist, was one of the leading figures of the English baroque movement. He designed a series of remarkable country houses.

John Vanbrugh was born in London and christened on Jan. 24, 1664. His father was Giles van Brugge, the son of a Protestant merchant from Ghent who had fled to England to escape Catholic persecution. Vanbrugh studied the arts in France (1683-1685). In 1686 he obtained a commission in a foot regiment, but he soon resigned. While traveling in France he was imprisoned by the French as a spy for nearly 2 years.

During his imprisonment Vanbrugh occupied himself in writing plays, and in 1696 he produced a highly successful comedy, The Relapse; or, Virtue in Danger. Its sequel, The Provok'd Wife, although strongly criticized for its immorality, was another triumph. Other plays followed in 1702, 1704, and 1705, but they were mostly translations or adaptations and added little to his reputation. His chief gifts were naturalness of dialogue and genial, lively humor, which, although broad, was not as coarse as the writing of many of his contemporaries.

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Castle Howard

Vanbrugh's genius was suddenly, in the words of Jonathan Swift, "without thought or lecture … hugely turned to architecture, " when in 1699 he began designing Castle Howard, Yorkshire, for the Earl of Carlisle. The following year the earl secured for him the post of comptroller of the royal works. The building of Castle Howard began in 1701, with Nicholas Hawksmoor as Vanbrugh's principal assistant. Castle Howard with its diversified baroque outline and its elegant Corinthian details is perhaps the most beautiful of Vanbrugh's works. Less successful was the Opera House he built in the Hay-market, in which he produced his play The Confederacy in 1705.

Blenheim Palace

In 1703 Vanbrugh was appointed commissioner at Greenwich Hospital, where Hawksmoor carried out Vanbrugh's plans for completing the Great Hall and for building the King William block. (Vanbrugh succeeded to the surveyorship of the hospital in 1716.) In 1704 the Duke of Marlborough selected Vanbrugh to build Blenheim Palace, which was intended as a royal gift to the victor in the wars against Louis XIV. No proper contracts were entered into between Queen Anne and Vanbrugh; and although generous grants were made at first from the Treasury, these ceased after a while and Vanbrugh was forced to depend upon the duke, who "naturally resisted the notion of having to pay for his own reward." Moreover, Vanbrugh fell into disgrace with Sarah, the tempestuous Duchess of Marlborough, who accused him of extravagance in building a house for which she had no liking. Her willfulness and antagonism reached their climax when Sir John and Lady Vanbrugh brought Lord and Lady Carlisle and their friends to see the completed palace and were refused admission.

Blenheim Palace, "an English Versailles" with its overwhelming masses of buildings, marks at once the climax of English baroque and its downfall, for Vanbrugh's style was so highly personal that an achievement of such magnitude in so individualistic a manner could hardly be matched by others. The way was clear for the Burlingtonian revival of Palladianism, with its strict adherence to rule.

The extent to which Vanbrugh was indebted to Hawksmoor in designing Castle Howard and Blenheim has been strongly debated, especially as Vanbrugh left few drawings that can confidently be ascribed to him. What is beyond question is that the partnership was eminently harmonious and successful. Vanbrugh's genius lay chiefly in the spectacular conceptions embodied in his works and in the dramatic disposition of the principal masses of his buildings. Hawksmoor exercised no less genius in handling masses and possessed great knowledge of decorative features and details.

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Other Works

At Seaton Delaval, Northumberland (1720-1728; interior gutted by fire, 1822), Vanbrugh displayed his dramatic talents no less intensely than at Blenheim, although on a smaller scale. Other important works of Vanbrugh were King's Weston, Gloucestershire (1711-1714); Claremont, Surrey (ca. 1715-1720; demolished); garden buildings at Stowe (ca. 1720-1725); Eastbury, Dorset (1718); and Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire (1723).

Vanbrugh was a handsome, witty, and popular member of society. He was married in 1719, at the age of 55, and lived happily, apart from the early death of his two sons. He died on March 26, 1726, in his own dwelling, Goose-pie House (destroyed), in Whitehall. The popular conception of his grand works was summed up in his epitaph: "Lie heavy on him, Earth, for he laid many heavy loads on thee!"

Further Reading on Sir John Vanbrugh

The Complete Works of Sir John Vanbrugh was published in four volumes in 1928. For selected plays by Vanbrugh see A. E. H. Swain, ed., Sir John Vanbrugh (1949). The principal studies of Vanbrugh's life and work are Lawrence Whistler, Sir John Vanbrugh: Architect and Dramatist (1938) and The Imagination of Vanbrugh and His Fellow Artists (1954). For the work of Vanbrugh's associates in the English baroque movement see John Summerson, Architecture in Britain, 1530-1830 (1953; 5th rev. ed. 1969).

Additional Biography Sources

Anthony, John, Vanbrugh: an illustrated life of Sir John Vanbrugh 1664-1726, Aylesbury: Shire, 1977.

Bingham, Madeleine, Baroness Clanmorris, Masks and facades: Sir John Vanbrugh: the man in his setting, London: Allen & Unwin, 1974.

Downes, Kerry, Sir John Vanbrugh: a biography, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Downes, Kerry, Vanbrugh, London: A. Zwemmer, 1977.

Whistler, Laurence, Sir John Vanbrugh, architect & dramatist, 1664-1726, Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus Reprint Co., 1978.