Vanbrugh, Sir John

views updated May 29 2018

Vanbrugh, Sir John (1664–1726). English architect of Flemish descent, author of risqué plays (including The Provok'd Wife (1697) sketched while languishing in French gaols), herald, soldier, and wit. Architecture became his prime interest around 1699 when he made designs for Castle Howard, Yorks., for Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle (1674–1738—to whom he was distantly related), supplanting Talman, who had prepared an earlier scheme. Castle Howard (1699–1726) was a virtuoso performance in the Baroque style, more Continental than English, all the more extraordinary as the work of an inexperienced amateur. The powerful, virile, and confident designs were realized with the assistance of Hawksmoor, who was appointed Draughtsman and Clerk of Works in 1700. Partly as a result of this success (and through his connections), Vanbrugh superseded Talman as Comptroller of the Works in 1702, and thus became Wren's colleague on the Board of Works. Quickly perceived as an architect of genius (though apparently without any formal training or experience), the agreeable, clubbable Vanbrugh lost no time in getting himself appointed architect to members of the Whig Oligarchy, replacing the quarrelsome Talman whenever possible. For a decade, as Comptroller of Her Majesty's Works, he enjoyed not only power but perquisites as well, and made the most of his opportunities. The Tories removed him from his post in 1713, but when the Whigs returned to power and George Lewis, Elector of Hanover, became King George I (reigned 1714–27) in 1714 he was not only re-stored to the Comptrollership but knighted as well, and in 1715 was also appointed Surveyor of Gardens and Waters. He was a strong personality within the Office of Works, but failed to succeed Wren as Surveyor in 1718, the job going to Benson, and towards the end of his life his Baroque style was out of favour, being superseded by Burlington's Palladianism.

In 1704 Vanbrugh gained his most important commission to design Blenheim Palace, Oxfon., a great house intended as a symbol of the Nation's and the Queen's gratitude to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722), for his victories over the French. There he was able to build on a vast scale, unhampered by penny-pinching, and with Blenheim English Baroque achieved its climax, though it was a Baroque that had no exact Continental equivalent despite the fact that its sources were French, Italian (the arcaded belvederes at the corner are reminiscent of Borromini's work), and English (notably the works of Talman and Wren). There was another aspect too, that of Vanbrugh's interest in medieval and Elizabethan architecture. Something of the dramatic skyline of prodigy houses can be seen at Blenheim and at other creations by one of England's greatest architects. Blenheim was completed by a cabinet-maker, James Moore, and by Hawksmoor.

Other houses by Vanbrugh were Kimbolton Castle, Hunts. (1707–10—with later additions by Galilei), King's Weston, near Bristol (c.1710–19); Eastbury Park, Dorset (begun 1718—demolished except for one wing); the Sublime Seaton Delaval, Northum. (1720–8), and the north front of Grimsthorpe Castle, Lins. (1722–6). He evoked something of the ‘Castle Air’ (as he termed it), medieval, and Elizabethan architecture without overt quotation. Seaton Delaval, with a plan combining Classical formalism and a reminiscence of medieval corner-towers, is one of Vanbrugh's most remarkable, powerful, memorable, and massive creations, with its insistent banding and rustication. Vanbrugh's sensitivity towards the past led him to attempt to retain the remains of Woodstock Manor in the grounds of Blenheim, for he recognized the importance of ruins in a landscape. Indeed, he contributed to the making of the gardens at Stowe, Bucks. (where he designed the Lake Pavilions, the Rotunda, the Temples of Bacchus and Sleep, the Cold Bath, and the Pyramid (c.1719–24—nearly all demolished or altered) ), and at Castle Howard, where he was responsible for the Obelisk (1714), Pyramid Gate (1719), and Belvedere Temple (1725–8), and must therefore be regarded as an important pioneering creator of Picturesque landscapes. Some of his architecture also had Picturesque qualities, notably his own house at Greenwich (Vanbrugh Castle, from 1718), with crenellated towers and bogus machicolations, the composition anticipating the Gothic Revival later in the century.


AH, 10 (1967), 7–88;
G. Beard (1986);
Colen Campbell (1967–72);
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Jane Turner (1993);
Vanbrugh (1927–8);
Whistler (1954)

Sir John Vanbrugh

views updated Jun 11 2018

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.

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.

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

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 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. □

Vanbrugh, Sir John

views updated Jun 08 2018

Vanbrugh, Sir John (1664–1726). Dramatist and architect. A good imitation of Renaissance Man, Vanbrugh was of Dutch descent. His grandfather settled in London as a merchant; his father moved to Chester after the Great Fire of London; his mother was the granddaughter of a peer. Vanbrugh began as a soldier, was made a captain, and spent 1688–92 in captivity in France. In 1696 he had an enormous success with his delightful comedy The Relapse, or Virtue in Danger, with its bravura role of Lord Foppington. He followed it in 1697 with The Provok'd Wife, and in 1705 The Confederacy was put on at the Queen's, Haymarket, which Vanbrugh had built. His last play, The Journey to London, was finished by Cibber and had great success as The Provok'd Husband. Meanwhile, Vanbrugh's career as an architect developed after he began building Castle Howard in 1701 for the earl of Carlisle. He was appointed comptroller of the board of works in 1702, Carlisle herald in 1703, and Clarenceux herald in 1704. His work on Blenheim palace began in 1705 and involved him in protracted and rancorous exchanges with Sarah, duchess of Marlborough. He was knighted by George I at Greenwich on his arrival in 1714 and was appointed architect of Greenwich hospital. Among his many buildings are Kimbolton ‘castle’ (1707), King's Weston, near Bristol (1710–25); Morpeth town hall (1714); the north front at Grimsthorpe (Lincs.) for the duke of Ancaster (1715–30); Eastbury (Dorset) for Dodington (1716–18); Floors castle for the duke of Roxburgh (1718); Seaton Delaval (Northd.) (1718–29), and much rebuilding at Lumley castle, Co. Durham (1722–4). His usual style is an extravagant and idiosyncratic baroque. Vanbrugh married late in life and his widow outlived him by 50 years: his only son was killed at Fontenoy.

J. A. Cannon

Vanbrugh, Sir John

views updated May 09 2018

Vanbrugh, Sir John (1664–1726) English Baroque architect and dramatist, who worked with and was influenced by Sir Christopher Wren. Vanbrugh took London by storm with his witty Restoration comedies, The Relapse (1696) and The Provok'd Wife (1697), before turning to architecture. Blenheim Palace (1705–20) and Castle Howard (1699–1726) are among his architectural masterpieces.

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