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Sir John Vanbrugh
John Vanbrugh.jpg
Born (1664-01-24)24 January 1664
Died 26 March 1726(1726-03-26) (aged 62)
Occupation Architect
Buildings Blenheim Palace
Castle Howard
Seaton Delaval Hall
Grimsthorpe Castle
Stowe House
Kings Weston House

Sir John Vanbrugh (24 January 1664 (baptised) – 26 March 1726) was an English architect and dramatist, perhaps best known as the designer of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. He was knighted in 1714.

Early life and background

Born in London and baptised on 24 January 1664, Vanbrugh was the fourth child (of 19), and eldest surviving son, of Giles Vanbrugh, a London cloth-merchant of Flemish descent and Protestant background, and his wife Elizabeth, widow of Thomas Barker, and daughter of Sir Dudley Carleton. He grew up in Chester, where his family had been driven by either the major outbreak of the plague in London in 1665, or the Great Fire of 1666. It is possible that he attended The King's School in Chester, though no records of his being a scholar there survive. Another candidate would have been the school at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, founded by Henry Hastings, 3rd Earl of Huntingdon. It was also not uncommon for boys to be sent to study at school away from home, or with a tutor.

After growing up in a large household in Chester (12 children of his mother's second marriage survived infancy), the question of how Vanbrugh spent the years from age 18 to 22 (after he left school) was long unanswered, with the baseless suggestion sometimes made that he had been studying architecture in France. In 1681 records name a 'John Vanbrugg' working for William Matthews, Giles Vanbrugh's cousin. It was not unusual for a merchant's son to follow in his father's trade and seek similar work in business, making use of family ties and connections. However, Robert Williams proved in an article in the Times Literary Supplement ("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 where his uncle, Edward Pearce, had been Governor. However, Vanbrugh never mentioned this experience in writing.

Political activism and the Bastille

Bastille Exterior 1790 or 1791
Sketch of the infamous French state prison the Bastille in Paris, where Vanbrugh was incarcerated

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 1688. 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, albeit in reasonable comfort. In 1691 he requested to be moved from Calais to Vincennes, at his own expense, where his treatment deteriorated enough to suffice his writing to Louis XIV, leading to his eventual transfer to the Bastille in February 1692. This raised the profile of his case once more, finally prompting his release in November of the same year, in an exchange of political prisoners.

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". He was allowed to return to England in April 1693; once he returned to England he joined the Navy and took part in an unsuccessful naval attack against the French at Brest. At some point in the mid-1690s, it is not known exactly when, he exchanged army life for London and the London stage. The precise reasons and motivations behind Vanbrugh's change in career remain unclear.


Vanbrugh's London career was diverse and varied, comprising playwriting and architectural design. As a playwright, 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.

As an architect (or surveyor, as the term then was) Vanbrugh is thought to have had no formal training. To what extent Vanbrugh's exposure to contemporary French architecture during years of imprisonment in France affected him is hard to gauge. During his almost thirty years as a practising architect, Vanbrugh designed and worked on numerous buildings. More often than not his work was a rebuild or remodel, such as that of Kimbolton Castle, where Vanbrugh had to follow the instructions of his patron. Consequently these houses, which often claim Vanbrugh as their architect, do not best display his own architectural concepts and ideas. In the summer of 1699 as part of his architectural education Vanbrugh made a tour of northern England, writing to Charles Montagu, 1st Duke of Manchester, (he was still an Earl at the time) on Christmas Day of that year: 'I have seen most of the great houses in the North, as Ld Nottings (sic): Duke of Leeds Chattesworth (sic) &C.' This itinerary likely included many of the great Elizabethan houses, including: Burghley House, Wollaton Hall, Hardwick Hall and Bolsover Castle, whose use of towers, complex skylines, bow widows and other features would be reinterpreted in Vanbrugh's own buildings.

Though Vanbrugh is best known in connection with stately houses, the parlous state of London's 18th-century streets did not escape his attention. It was reported in the London Journal of 16 March 1722–23:

"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 street, and to carry all the water off by drains and common sewers under ground."

Vanbrugh's chosen style was the 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 contest 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. Seizing it, Vanbrugh instigated European baroque's metamorphosis into a subtle, almost understated version that became known as English baroque. Four of Vanbrugh's designs act as milestones for evaluating this process:

  1. Castle Howard, commissioned in 1699;
  2. Blenheim Palace, commissioned in 1704;
  3. Kings Weston House, begun in 1712;
  4. Seaton Delaval Hall, begun in 1718.

Work on each of these projects overlapped with that on the next, providing a natural progression of thoughts and style.


Vanbrugh Castle
Vanbrugh Castle in Greenwich, south London

In 1719, at St Lawrence's Church, York (since rebuilt), Vanbrugh married Henrietta Maria Yarburgh of Heslington Hall, York, aged 26 to his 55. In spite of the age difference, this was by all accounts a happy marriage, which produced two sons. Unlike that of the rake heroes and fops of his plays, Vanbrugh's personal life was without scandal.


Vanbrugh died "of an asthma" on 26 March 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. A Grade I listed building, and formerly a RAF Boys' School, it is today divided into private apartments.

Vanbrugh was buried in the church of St Stephen Walbrook in the City of London, but his grave is unmarked.


Blue Plaque on Vanbrugh Castle Outer Walls
Blue plaque for Vanbrugh at his home in Greenwich

Vanbrugh is remembered today for his vast contribution to British culture, theatre, and architecture.

Zoffany-Garrick in Provoked Wife
The role of Sir John Brute in The Provoked Wife became one of David Garrick's most famous roles.

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.

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 commemorated throughout Britain, by inns, street names, a university college (York) and schools named in his honour.


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