Published  30/09/2008

Book review: Sir John Vanbrugh: Storyteller in Stone

Sir John Vanbrugh: Storyteller in Stone

A new biographical study of the architect Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) is most timely. The historical importance of this remarkable polymath has been in need of revision for four decades or more

Vaughan Hart. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008.

Vanbrugh was positioned in different ways by Sir John Summerson, for example, or by Sir Niklaus Pevsner. On one hand, due recognition was paid to him for the designs of Castle Howard, and for Blenheim Palace, especially. But in the past two decades, the relationship of such buildings to their total landscape has been reconsidered, as has the work by Vanbrugh's collaborators, such as Nicholas Hawksmoor, and even successors, such as Capability Brown. Increasingly, over the turn of the 17th century into the 18th, important innovations were pioneered by Vanbrugh, and by his later successor at Castle Howard, Nicholas Hawksmoor. As John Dixon Hunt memorably indicated, 'John Vanbrugh and his adjutant and later successor, Nicholas Hawksmoor, created one of the earliest examples of the so-called English landscape garden at Castle Howard from the 1710s'.1 Hunt relates how the ancient Howard castle of Henderskelfe had burned down in 1693 there, but the Howard/Carlisle family wished to preserve the memory of medieval times, as a site narrative, in a gesture towards 'old English'. To assert also the classic origins of the site, the Temple of Four Winds, as well as the subsequent Howard Mausoleum, were inserted dramatically into this rolling Yorkshire landscape.

Hart shows how earlier historians were somewhat misleading over Vanbrugh. He was seen as seriously influenced by the rise of the Palladian movement in England, under Burlington, Colen Campbell and William Kent: Vanbrugh's final designs at Grimsthorpe Castle (1723), as described by Timothy Mowl, 'represented an ignominious capitulation to Palladianism'. But it is evident from Hart that this was not entirely so. Rather than falling for the classical straightjacket, Vanbrugh had a predilection more for medieval forms. But he was, in the final analysis, his own man. Hart shows tellingly Vanbrugh's strong connection with the Whig social and political ascendancy in England at that time.

The strength of the Tory urge to formalism became supplanted by the countervailing mood, particularly among the Whig hierarchy at the time, which stemmed from the reality of rule by a constitutional monarchy 'of men born in a free society'. This, in turn, led to a revival of ornamentation and landscaping, with a free spirit.

Hart traces Vanbrugh's own individual career as partly that of a military adventurer, one who knew by first-hand experience India rather than Italy. This placed him in a rare enough category. After the troubled 17th century, scene of almost continuous wars on the continent, quite apart from the English Civil War, there was no shortage of swashbuckling gentry seemingly bereft of dramatic engagement. Vanbrugh the dramatist could be said to have sprung from this culture, which in due course was reflected in his architecture. Further, as a scholar of medieval heraldry and in seeking to recognise an English past, he fused all these interests together, a far cry from the emergent, blander Palladianism fostered by Lord Burlington.

Certain key innovations sponsored by Vanbrugh had a formative effect on landscape and garden design. At Castle Howard, the substitution of the 'ha-ha' (as a substitute barrier for a fence) established a dramatic innovation between 'cultured' landscape and the wider, more agricultural purpose of the surrounding estate. Such dramatic intervention drew upon his own inclinations as a literary dramatist for the stage, indeed by the creation of a kind of garden proscenium. The late Christopher Hussey was emphatic in noting and attributing this innovation directly to Vanbrugh2 (rather than to William Kent, as given credit by Horace Walpole). As Hart documents, Vanbrugh was fortunate in his working life as an architect to serve on the Board of Works, a key office and rich source of work and contacts at the time. He acted as Controller and as Surveyor of the Royal Gardens and Waters. He also worked under Sir Christopher Wren. Most importantly, he developed through such connections a close working relationship and friendship with Nicholas Hawksmoor, Secretary to the Board and later Vanbrugh's deputy there.

The landscape of 'Enlightenment' reached its early zenith at Castle Howard, and Hart is careful to describe Castle Howard as significant here within Vanbrugh's oeuvre. More emphasised in this respect than by previous historians, it is his insertion into this scenario both of the Temple of Four Winds and then later of the Mausoleum which seems to complete a picture within which Nicholas Hawksmoor also played a key role. With regard to the former, Hart gives the reader a special insight into Vanbrugh's discharge of client responsibilities. The description for the client, Lord Carlisle, of the provisions made inside the 'Temple' of both library facilities and also space in the alcoves for 'A Bot Wine' indicates how Carlisle expected to disappear for several hours there, free from the cares of his great house. On a nearby landscape promontory, the insertion of the mausoleum rotunda would serve as a reminder of the ephemerality of life. Yet as the author says, such great estates as Blenheim, Castle Howard and Claremont were idealised in their architect's mind as semi-fortified havens of Golden Age prosperity, ushered in under Whig rule.

The work clarifies the extent to which the 'English Baroque' was essentially home-grown, yet could not compare readily with continental variants. It disputed in England firmly that territory purportedly occupied by Palladians, against whom Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor now do seem to our contemporary eye to be so much more innovative, as well as having deeper cultural roots and resonances within English culture. Hart designates this as in no way some kind of provincial or regional variant. The English inclination towards medieval castellated detailing, fused with a classical deportment, created a Baroque offshoot from the main stem equally as interesting as, say, was Sicilian Baroque in its time. This was never acknowledged but ignored by such architectural historians as Christian Norberg-Schultz. In the 20th century it was the highly original and innovative modernism of Sir James Stirling that served to remind us of the earlier and comparable originality of Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Michael Spens

1. Hunt JD. In: Adams WH, Wrede S (eds). Denatured Visions: Landscape and Culture in the Twentieth Century. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988: 25-26.
2. Hussey C. The Picturesque, Studies in a Point of View. London: Frank Cass & Co, l967: 128.

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