(baptized Jan. 24, 1664, London, Eng.—died March 26, 1726, London) English dramatist and architect. He began writing while serving as a soldier. He specialized in the comedy of manners; his successful plays include The Relapse (1696) and The Provok'd Wife (1697). He also wrote lively adaptations from the French, more farce than comedy, including The Country House (performed 1703) and The Confederacy (1705). In 1702 he designed Castle Howard, Yorkshire, with Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661–1736). His masterpiece, again with Hawksmoor, was Blenheim Palace (1705–16), Oxfordshire, which brought the English baroque style to its culmination.
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Sir John Vanbrugh (pronounced "Van'-bru") (24 January 1664? – 26 March 1726) was an English architect and dramatist, perhaps best known as the designer of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. He wrote two argumentative and outspoken Restoration comedies, The Relapse (1696) and The Provoked Wife (1697), which have become enduring stage favourites 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 18th-century society, not only by the sexual explicitness of his plays, but also by their messages in defence 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.
Downes is sceptical of earlier historians' claims of a lower middle-class background and shows that an 18th-century suggestion that 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 the owner of a sugar house, a factory for the refining of raw sugar from Barbados. Sugar refining would normally have been combined with sugar trading, which was a lucrative business. Downes' example of one sugar baker's house in Liverpool, estimated to bring in £40,000 a year in trade from Barbados, throws a new light on Vanbrugh's social background, one rather different from the picture of a backstreet Chester sweetshop as painted by Leigh Hunt in 1840 and reflected in many later accounts.
How Vanbrugh spent the years from age 18 to 22 (after he left 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 TLS ("Vanbrugh's Lost Years," 3 September 1999) that Vanbrugh was in India for part of this period, working for the East India Company at their trading post in Surat, Gujarat. For the rest of his life, however, Vanbrugh never mentioned this experience in writing. Scholars debate whether evidence of his exposure to Indian architecture can be detected in any of his architectural designs.
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 lucrative sugar trade, Vanbrugh never in later life seemed to possess any capital for business ventures such as the Haymarket Theatre, but always had to rely on loans and backers. The fact that Giles Vanbrugh had twelve children to support and set up in life may go some way towards explaining the debts that were to plague John all his life.
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 1689. He thus demonstrates 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 (see McCormick). After being released 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" (Downes 75). 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.
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 1689 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 proved. 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.
In 1703, Vanbrugh started buying land and signing backers for the construction of a new theatre in 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 theatre in London, which was under threat from more colourful types of entertainment such as opera, juggling, pantomime (introduced by John Rich), animal acts, travelling 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 theatre, a notorious tightrope act for which he had no experience. The often repeated rumour 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 theatre 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 Haymarket showed "numerous signs of confusion, inefficiency, missed opportunities, and bad judgment" (Milhous). Having burned his fingers on theatre 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 theatre 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.
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 satirised 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.
Vanbrugh arrived in London at a time of scandal and internal drama at London's only theatre 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.
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 theatre 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 18th 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 this 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 (see Hume).
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" (Dobrée), by virtue of being not merely laughably affected, but also "brutal, evil, and smart" (Hume).
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 forty years later, "from its new and easy Turn of Wit, had great Success".
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 specialities. 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", i.e., 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.
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, theatre management, and architecture.
Though Vanbrugh is best known in connection with stately houses, the parlous state of London's 18th-century streets did not escape his attention. In the London Journal of 16 March 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 17th 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 (see Downes, 193–204). 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:-
Work in progress on each of these projects overlapped into the next, providing a natural progression of thoughts and style.
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 centre 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 centre 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, to an altered design.
The acclaim of the work at Castle Howard led to Vanbrugh's most famous commission, architect for Blenheim Palace.
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 of a castle, or citadel, than a 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 centre 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 theatre 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 splendours and rewards of his conqueror. Whether 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 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 corps de logis between two flanking wings. At Seaton Delaval the wings have a centre projection of three bays, crowned by pediment, either side of which are 7 bays of sash windows above a ground floor arcade. 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 centre 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 centre 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.
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.
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 favour 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 patronised, 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 rows and resulting rumours 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 Vanbrugh'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 amphitheatre 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 '...in 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.'
Attributed works include:
On the 18th-century stage, Vanbrugh's Relapse and Provoked Wife were only considered possible to perform in bowdlerised 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 favourite 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 honour, 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.