COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

Vanbrugh's mock-medieval wall at Castle Howard.
Vanbrugh's mock-medieval wall at Castle Howard.

2014 marks the 350th anniversary of the birth of Sir John Vanbrugh, architect of Castle Howard. David takes a look at his life and critical reaction to his work.

At the start of a new year, it’s always good to look forward to the anniversaries that are coming up.

In 2013 there were plenty of musicians’ anniversaries – we celebrated Wagner’s and Verdi’s 200th birthdays, Britten’s 100th (and Lutoslawski’s, too). This new year is less full of musical greats (Gluck is the main one), but it’s a good year to remember architects; several notable ones have special anniversaries this year – let’s start with one of the most important and interesting.

One of Britain’s greatest architects will be 350 this year. Sir John Vanbrugh, architect of Castle Howard, was born in January 1664 (he was baptised on the 24th of that month). His father was a cloth merchant from Flanders, who also had an interest in sugar plantations on the West Indies. After school in Chester (or possibly in Ashby de la Zouche; the records are unclear) he went to India with the East India Company, working at Surat, a trading post in Gujarat.

By 1686 he was back, with a commission in the army. He worked as a spy, plotting to get William of Orange on to the throne – but before that happened he was caught and spent four and a half years in French prisons, lastly in the Bastille. After his release he had the opportunity to study the new French architecture of the time, before returning to England with a new career – as a playwright.

His plays – ‘The Relapse’ and ‘The Provok’d Wife’ – are the best known – made him instantly famous, but as tastes changed from the libertine age of the Restoration to the more staid rules of the next generation, he needed another outlet. One new employment he found was as a herald – by 1704 he had been promoted to be one of the Kings of Arms, the senior heralds (he later described it as ‘a place I got in jest’). But even before this he had set off on yet another career, the one for which he is most famous – that of architect.

It’s not clear why he did so. Dean Swift wrote at the time, ‘Van’s genius, without thought or lecture, / Is hugely turn’d to architecture’, suggesting that it was something of a whim, but one to which he applied himself – though ‘hugely’ also suggests that Vanbrugh liked to work on a grand scale, as Castle Howard, Seaton Delaval Hall and, above all, Blenheim Palace would indicate.

Castle Howard was his first job – he may have owed it to being a fellow-member of the famous Kit-Kat Club with its builder, the Earl of Carlisle. Carlisle decided in 1698 to build a new house – but in July 1699 fell out with his chosen architect, the prickly William Talman (who designed Chatsworth). Vanbrugh may not have been an obvious choice, but with his knowledge of French buildings and of the theatre, he was in tune with the Earl’s needs.

If the Earl had any doubts, Vanbrugh, working with professional architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, dispelled them. Castle Howard is one of the treasures of the short-lived English Baroque. Its planning was innovative, and culminated in the great central hall with its dome (a late addition to the scheme). And if the elevations aren’t quite as successful, they have the great theatricality about them that was one of Vanbrugh’s strengths. The same touch of the theatre is found elsewhere on the estate – in the Pyramid Gate and the Great Pyramid, and in the mock-medieval wall with its deliberately-ruined towers that wind along the ridge the house occupies and pretend to tell of the Earl’s long heritage (the 14th-century Henderskelfe Castle, once near the site, was ruined by fire in 1683 and removed, along with the village, for the new Castle Howard).

Vanbrugh was unusual for his time in liking old architecture, especially Gothic. While his contemporaries decried Gothic architecture as brutal and barbarian, Vanbrugh, an early Romantic, liked it. When it was proposed to demolish the old Woodstock Manor house at Blenheim, he pleaded (in vain) for its retention as ‘the Very House in which so great a man dwelt . . . to make men Admire the Beauty of the Fabrick.’

For his own house in Greenwich, Vanbrugh designed something very like a castle (indeed he called it Vanbrugh Castle). And, although it’s in a Baroque-cum-Palladian style, his final building, Seaton Delaval, near Whitley Bay, is Gothic in its effect, with a massive central block like a castle keep. In its current state, scarred by the fire of 1822, it is more Gothic than ever.

For most of his colleagues, Vanbrugh was a great friend. Even the curmudgeonly Lord Chesterfield wrote of Vanbrugh that he knew ‘no man who united conversational pleasantry and perfect good humour in so eminent a degree.’ Most of his clients, too, got on well with him; the Earl of Carlisle liked him – though he dealt for practical matters mostly with the efficient Hawksmoor. Only at Blenheim did Vanbrugh come up against an awkward situation in the person of the Duchess of Marlborough, who hated the architect’s grandiose designs and the amount of money the Palace was costing.

Sixty years after Vanbrugh’s death in 1726 Sir Joshua Reynolds wrote that ‘ 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 the critic Sir Uvedale Price described his work as ‘uniting in one building the beauty and magnificence of Grecian architecture, the picturesqueness of the Gothic, and the massive grandeur of a castle.’ This year, it’s worth visiting one of Vanbrugh’s great buildings (Castle Howard, Blenheim and Seaton Delaval are all open to the public) to see if you agree.