VANBRUGH, John
(b. 1664, London, d. 1726, London)

Biography

English architect and dramatist. He was a leading figure of the English Baroque and was the most important country-house designer in England at the beginning of the 18th century. He collaborated with Nicholas Hawksmoor on Castle Howard (first design, 1699) and Blenheim Palace (begun 1705). He was also a successful author of comedies. He was largely self-taught as an architect. In 1702 he received the post of Comptroller of the Queen's Works, the second office in royal building in England.

John Vanbrugh's 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 (1683-85). 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 humour, which, although broad, was not as coarse as the writing of many of his contemporaries.

Vanbrugh's genius was suddenly 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.

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. 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. 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.

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.