Happy Birthday Sir John Vanbrugh; the master of English Baroque

Portrait of John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) by Sir Godfrey Kneller (Image: Wikipedia)
Portrait of John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) by Sir Godfrey Kneller (Image: Wikipedia)

One of the most exciting eras of British architecture was the Baroque; a unique fusion of Continental influences, leavened with a dash of characteristic restraint, which created something elegant, strident and theatrical – words which could equally describe the best known architect of that time, Sir John Vanbrugh, born 350 years ago this month.

Although much is known about his later life, his exact date of birth is not; simply that he was baptised on the 24 January 1664 (though he .  Born into a wealthy and well-connected family (his father was a sugar trader), his schooling and early career are still subject to some debate, with suggestions that he spent time working at a trading post in India.  The first solid evidence is his commission in January 1686 in the Earl of Huntingdon‘s foot regiment, though he was to leave in August that same year. After this, Vanbrugh engaged with the Whig cause and played a minor role in the Glorious Revolution of 1689 – though he was to miss the event itself as he spent four and half years in French prisons, including the Bastille, from September 1688 on (what Kerry Downes believes to be trumped up) charges of spying. Emerging in 1692, he had three months of enforced leisure in Paris until he could return to England, where he promptly joined the Navy, taking part in an attack on the French.  In the mid-1690s, he returned to London and became a playwright but also started developing his architectural career, perhaps in response to the changing social tastes in the late-1690s which found his bawdy Restoration comedies increasingly unacceptable.  A witty, intelligent and convivial character, Vanbrugh was never short of friends or connections.

Once Vanbrugh had decided to be an architect, he appears to have passionately embraced his new vocation – something noted by his contemporaries, including Jonathan Swift, who remarked that ‘Van’s genius, without thought or lecture, Is hugely turn’d to architecture‘. Most architects have to prove their skill with smaller projects but Vanbrugh was to start with possibly one of the most important commissions then available, Castle Howard for the Earl of Carlisle, and make such a dramatic entrance that his reputation was firmly established from then on.

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Yorkshire Country House Partnership)
Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Yorkshire Country House Partnership)

Broadly, the designs produced by Vanbrugh can be seen as a distillation and development of the work of three other architects; William Talman, Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir Christopher Wren.  Talman had created the first Baroque country house, with his south and east fronts of Chatsworth House, completed in 1696.  Baroque had originated and developed in Italy with architects such Bernini, Borromini and da Cortona using the language of ancient Rome to express the majesty of the Catholic church, and also by French monarchs as a statement of their absolute power. Its use by the resolutely Whig Protestant 1st Duke of Devonshire, was perhaps a carefully calculated statement to both the monarch, to remind him that power now lay with them, and a snub to the Catholic church, that their chosen style across Europe was firmly owned by the Protestants in England.

'Goose Pie House', Whitehall - designed by Sir John Vanbrugh 1700 (Image: copyright of The Trustees of Sir John Soane's Museum, London)
‘Goose Pie House’, Whitehall – designed by Sir John Vanbrugh 1700 (Image: copyright of The Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)

Vanbrugh, although closely allied with the Whigs and sympathetic to their preferred style, also showed a medieval influence, with a clear interest in the military architecture of the period. In both his commissions and his own home in London, ‘Goose Pie House‘ in Whitehall, he incorporated the martial vocabulary of turrets and towers, giving his work a more monumental aspect, a solidity which played well with the aristocratic patrons who wished to evoke their family history but also wished to live in contemporary luxury.

With Baroque as an astute political choice, Vanbrugh was also able to bring his theatrical flair to play with the rich language it provided.  Castle Howard is one of the finest buildings in the world, and certainly one of the grandest in the country – not a bad start for a novice.  Horace Walpole visited in 1772 and afterwards wrote:

Nobody had informed me at one view I should see a palace, a town, a fortified city, temples on high places, woods worthy of being a metropolis of Druids, the noblest lawn fenced by half the horizon and a mausoleum that would tempt me to be buried alive: in short, I have seen gigantic places before, but never a sublime one.

Lord Carlisle was a well-educated and well-travelled man whose Grand Tour had taken him across Europe, including, naturally, Rome.  Although William Talman had been first given the job, his irascible nature led to his firing, and so, in 1699, Carlisle gave his fellow Kit-Cat Club member, Vanbrugh, the chance of a lifetime.

Here, it is worth making clear that Vanbrugh’s houses, and especially Castle Howard, were joint enterprises with another exceptional architect; Nicholas Hawksmoor.  Assistant to Sir Christopher Wren, Hawksmoor was an expert on Classical architecture and drafting and also a sound project manager who helped deliver Vanbrugh’s ideas from paper to stone. Hawksmoor has often been given credit for the designs of Vanbrugh’s houses but it seems that, as John Summerson said, both were exceptional men, and that each was the perfect compliment to the other.

Drawing showing original plan for Castle Howard (Image: via Visiting Houses and Gardens)
Drawing showing original plan for Castle Howard (Image: via Visiting Houses and Gardens)

Construction started on the east wing of Castle Howard in 1699 and was completed by 1703, with the main block finished in 1706, the principal apartments by 1712 and the most important interiors by 1715, at a total cost of £38,000.  And what a house Lord Carlisle got for his money – a composition of low wings, leading to a grand central block, decorated with vibrant stonework, culminating in the first dome to be used on a country house in the UK, with interiors which cleverly used light and space to create a theatrical effect to awe any visitor.  Drawing from an earlier design for Greenwich Hospital by Sir Christopher Wren, Vanbrugh’s imagination had been given full reign to develop a most remarkable response to his client’s commission, fused with the crisp execution of the work overseen by Hawksmoor.  Carlisle was delighted with his new palace – which proved both domestically convenient and warm – but the architectural ripples the house created led to wide admiration, with it even being included in the ‘bible’ of Palladianism, Vitruvius Britannicus.  The additional triumphs of the parkland buildings, also mostly by his hand, cemented the reception of this house and setting as one of the most brilliant to have been created anywhere in the country.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire - entrance front (Image: Blenheim Palace)
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire – entrance front (Image: Blenheim Palace)

Vanbrugh’s success led to his second great commission, Blenheim Palace – though it was to be a much less happy experience for both client and architect. Whilst still working at Castle Howard, construction at Blenheim began in 1705.  Intended as a monumental tribute from a grateful nation to the Duke of Marlborough, it was also supposed to be a home. That demand for something which spoke not only to the stature of the recipient but also the generosity of the Royal patron, was perhaps the perfect commission for Vanbrugh and his imagination.  Sadly, relations between the architect and the Countess of Marlborough were fractious and Vanbrugh was eventually banned from the site and never visited his completed design.

Despite this, the building is an immense display of bravura – a vast testament to the breadth of imagination, which was reflected in the cost which spiralled from the Duke’s original suggestion of £40,000 to £300,000 by the time it was complete.  The design is broadly similar to that of Castle Howard but with an added degree of magnificence which elevates it using not only the sprawling scale but also the extensive decorative martial stonework to attain monumental status.  That the building had to be finished by Hawksmoor – who described himself as ‘a Loving Nurse that almost thinks her child her own‘ – doesn’t detract from one of the defining buildings of that age, a magnificent testament to Vanbrugh’s skill.

Kings Weston House, Bristol (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Kings Weston House, Bristol (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Driven by his interest in military architecture, Vanbrugh’s other country house designs can also be seen to be drawing on his personal preference for the spirit of fortifications.  In 1707, whilst working on Kimbolton Castle, Huntingdonshire, he wrote in a letter ‘…I thought twas absolutely best, to give it Something of the Castle Air, tho’ at the Same time to make it regular‘.  With his next commission, Kings Weston House, in 1709-10, what starts as a compact and elegant villa is given the flavour of a castle above the roofline, with the chimneys grouped together in a central stack, evoking the idea of a keep.  At Lumley Castle it was the reverse, with an Italianate air being applied to a truly ancient castle.

The last three country houses Vanbrugh designed in the years before his death were perhaps some of his finest – concentrated distillations of his ideas but each given its own distinctive approach.  Seaton Delaval Hall is perhaps the best expression of the castle as country house; a central block with a keep-like mass in the centre, a bold entrance taking the form of a gatehouse, flanked by two turrets.  This formula is almost a hallmark of Vanbrugh (bar Kings Weston and Kimbolton which deviate) but the inventiveness of each shows that as with the English language, the architect was also a master of this architectural vocabulary.  Eastbury House in Dorset, merged elements of Blenheim, Kings Weston and Seaton Delaval whilst Grimsthorpe Castle is perhaps the best expression of the blend between that outline and the Classical style, creating a deeply satisfying design which delights to this day.

Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire (Image: Grimsthorpe estate)
Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire (Image: Grimsthorpe estate)

Within his lifetime and much later, Vanbrugh was hugely influential, yet the fashion for Baroque was quickly to wane after his death in 1726 – Summerson points out that by 1728 it was the subject of caricature, and by 1730 presumed dead.  Anglo-Baroque offered an attractive stylistic path with a symmetry which felt natural to the British, but combined with a flair that gave real vibrancy wherever it was used.  350 years later, in our more pluralistic and accommodating age, Vanbrugh – and by extension Hawksmoor – would have been able to co-exist with Burlington and Flitcroft and the stage would have been set as with each new building they vied to win the architectural hearts of the nation. Perhaps our greatest regret with regards to Vanbrugh should be that the coming of Palladianism and its zealous evangelism was to end the development of Sir John’s more exciting and theatrical approach but today we can at least admire and fully appreciate his genius in stone.

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Further reading and visiting details

Biographies 

Houses

Castle Howard – still owned by the Lords Carlisle, open to the public

Blenheim Palace – still owned by the Dukes of Marlborough, open to the public

Kimbolton Castle – now a school, occasionally open to the public

Kings Weston House owned by Bristol Council, leased to a private individual, not open to the public, though the parkland is.

Lumley Castle – now a hotel

Seaton Delaval Hall – owned by the National Trust, open to the public

Eastbury House (demolished bar one wing) – privately owned, not open to the public

Grimsthorpe Castle – owned by a charitable trust for the de Eresby family, open to the public

Guest blogger: Jeremy Musson – ‘English Ruins: an odyssey in English history’

Having written all nearly 200 posts since I started writing this blog I now thought it would be interesting to try and broaden the voices involved.  So as the first post in this new direction/experiment, I am delighted and honoured that one of our leading architectural historians, Jeremy Musson, kindly agreed to write a piece on country house ruins linked to his new book published this month, ‘English Ruins‘, a fascinating look at their role in shaping our perceptions of the past and our architecture.

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Jeremy Musson
Jeremy Musson

The English landscape is a landscape of ruins. Fragmentary or sometimes only roofless and windowless, these part dismantled buildings stand out to mark our national history in a number of different ways, and above all, provide a sense of historic scenery for our journeys, physical and imagined – and glimpsed from motorways and footpath alike. In this new book, photographer Paul Barker and I wanted to explore something of this particular cultural landscape and through this exploration trace something of how the English see themselves and their past.

I feel that we live in an old country, and the past is always there, to paraphrase T.S.Eliot, “pressing on the future”. Some love the past, some hate it, many are indifferent to it, happy enough to take pleasure in a good day out, with a dash of historic scenery. But the whole process of our encounter with ruins, is somewhat special – a deeply subjective, and in effect, an almost artistic experience. It is personal and often emotional, while it is also formed and shaped by a whole series of sometimes opposing cultural inheritances: Romanticism, anti-establishment, veneration for the classical, veneration for the Gothic, history seen through the very shape of the landscape.

There is something that seems to appeal about ruins to the English imagination over the centuries. Think of how John Aubrey, for instance, the late seventeenth antiquary and author of that amusing volume of English biography Brief Lives, observed that

“the eie and mind is no less affected with these stately ruines than they would be if they were standing and entire. They breed in generous mindes a kind of pittie; and set the thoughts aworke to make out their magnificence as they were in perfection.”

Piranesi: 'Temple of Hercules, at Cori' - 1769 (Image: Mattia Jona Gallery)
Piranesi: 'Temple of Hercules, at Cori' - 1769 (Image: Mattia Jona Gallery)

During the 18th century, the Grand Tour, part of the expected education of a gentleman or aristocrat, consisted of a journey through Holland and France to visit the great monuments of the Roman world, excited the aesthetic and cultural awareness of the 18th-century English gentleman, who was in turn the patron of artists and architects following the same path in trying to import the drama and excitement of great classical ruins to an English audience. Walk through any major house built in the 18th century, with anything of its original collections still in situ and the ruin is visible in painting after painting, and then echoed in the classical temples of the park.

The phenomenon of creating artificial ruins, in which the English seem to be pioneers, belongs to this period, and while the earliest garden temples seem to be classical, the contrivance of designing ‘ruined’ structures, was largely sourced in England’s own Gothic past. Horace Walpole the 18th-century diarist, who designed his own Gothic style house, Strawberry Hill, hugely admired the work of Sanderson Miller who designed a ruined tower at Hagley Park, with the perhaps slightly teasing phrase that it had “the true rust of the barons’ wars” referring to the Wars of the Roses.

When making this tour of England in tandem with photographer Paul Barker, I could not help noticing that we were often treading in the footsteps of the great landscape painter, J.M.W.Turner, for whom the evocative power of the ruin played a central role in his career, although we perhaps think of him most naturally as a landscape painter, and a painter of skies.

In the last years of the 18th century he exhibited numerous studies of great historical ruins in landscapes, appealing to the Romantic spirit of his audience – characteristically these are the foil for dramatic expositions of sky or sea. He continued to make special studies of ancient ruins, castles and abbeys on tours around the whole of England, for his ambitious Liber Studiorum project, and many were published in different histories, especially in Charles Heath’s Picturesque Views in England and Wales.

Turner looked principally at abbeys and castles, but abandoned country houses have come to be a feature of our landscape too. The dramatic changing status of the country house from the first world war, into the great depression of the late 20s and early 30s, becomes even more intense after the second world war – think of John Harris’s memoir, No Voice from the Hall. This was a period which resulted in so much change in English life, that it is easy to overlook the symbolic collapse of the world of the English country house. This was a feature of interwar life too, with the rise of income tax and death duties, but the upheaval of the Second World War, the widespread institutional use of country houses for military and other government purposes often hastened their subsequent abandonment.

Cowdray House, Sussex (Image: Cowdray Heritage Trust)
Cowdray House, Sussex (Image: Cowdray Heritage Trust)

Inevitably, given my interest, the country house looms large in our new book. We focus on the story of buildings from different themes and for the ruins of country house, beginning with Cowdray House, in Sussex, a substantial Elizabethan mansion damaged by a fire in the late eighteenth century, and then abandoned, partly as a result of complications over inheritance; but quickly becoming a destination for artists, for instance, Turner visited the ruins while staying at Petworth – it is now looked after by a newly formed trust, and feels like the sets left over from a Grand Opera, standing amongst the meadows and paddocks on the edge of Midhurst.

We also visited the ruin of an elegant early-seventeenth-century lodge at Wothorpe Towers, a lodge once part of the Burghley estate, which was used as a dower house and then, apparently, part dismantled to provide an eye-catcher in the new landscaped park. It was falling into serious decay and has recently been taken on by the Griffin family, who putting the main house into a trust, which is restoring the gardens, are converting the ancillary seventeenth century buildings into a new home.

Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (Image: Alan J. White / wikipedia)
Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (Image: Alan J. White / wikipedia)

The classical country house tradition is represented in our book, by 1720s Seaton Delaval Hall, near Newcastle – one of the finest houses by Sir John Vanbrugh, re-roofed after a major fire, the interiors are otherwise the very picture of a ruin. In Derbyshire, we encountered the memorable and mournful spectacle of Sutton Scarsdale Hall in Derbyshire, also built in the early 18th century. The latter, partly due to its proximity to mine-works, acquired in 1919, by businessman out to profit from its materials and fittings. The panelling was sold United States collectors, and some at least found its way into the Museum of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Its demolition was in fact prevented by local landowner Sir Reresby Sitwell, whose family later presented it to the state.

James Lees Milne, looked at the Sutton Scarsdale ruins for the National Trust, but said that “classical ruins in England are much satisfactory than Gothic ones, the lack picturesque gloom.” English Heritage look after it now, as they do Witley Court, a multi-layered great house and former seat of the Earl of Dudley, a splendid Italianiate palace with a vast portico by John Nash, was burnt out in 1937, and by some chance was not demolished during the 1950s, like so many abandoned houses, and it was subject to preservation order in the 1970s, and in the early 70s taken into state protection. Christopher Hussey thought that it conjured the beauties of the classical ruins visited by the Grand Tourist in the 18th century, as much as anything else.

Lowther Castle, Cumbria
Lowther Castle, Cumbria

Forgotten Victorian Gothic mansions such as Lowther Castle in Cumbria, possibly become more Romantic in their ruined state. Lowther, the historic seat of the Earls of Lonsdale, designed by Smirke in Gothic baronial style was not re-occupied after the second world war, and in 1957, de-roofed and only the exterior walls preserved. A haunting presence in the beautiful Cumbrian landscape, a new trust has been created to protect the runs and open them and the overgrown Edwardian gardens to the public, in the course of 2011.

For myself, as a historian of the English country house, there is no doubt that the ruin occupies a special place in English culture; the castle, the abbot’s lodgings, the country houses of the sixteenth century onwards, when they stand open to the elements, draw us in to a dialogue with our history and the mutability of fortune.

Jeremy Musson’s ‘English Ruins‘ with photographer Paul Barker, is published by Merrell publishers.

Text by Jeremy Musson, choice of links and images by Matthew Beckett.

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Dear Readers – as always I welcome your comments and feedback.

‘The National Trust can have it’: why the NT can’t accept all offers

Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland
Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland

In an ideal world no country house would ever be at risk but poor finances, often caused by pernicious death duties, and insufficient income from the estate or investments leaves families facing the reality of being unable to stay in their ancestral home.  When this situation arises the cry has often been for the National Trust to step in and ‘save’ the house.  Yet the financial complexities of taking on a house and the responsibilities of the many others they already care for mean that it’s unlikely the National Trust would be able to unless it meets their necessarily strict conditions – a marked contrast to the rather more ad hoc approach of the early years of country house acquisitions.

The National Trust owns over 330 houses though only about half would be considered true country houses.  The first, Barrington Court, Somerset was acquired in 1907, though it wasn’t until the 1940s that the National Trust began to acquire houses in any significant numbers.  Instrumental in the early acquisitions was James Lees-Milne, the Secretary of the Country Houses Committee between 1936-51 (see also this fascinating reflection on JLM and the NT).  A complex man from a well-to-do family who got progressively poorer, but with his good looks and manners, and a certain charm, he was able to lay the ground for many of the later acquisitions through his aristocratic contacts.

The National Trust was initially focussed on the countryside with any houses being taken on as rescue missions to save them from demolition.  This changed after an impassioned speech in 1934 by Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian, who argued that our country houses were a unique and valuable heritage and worthy of being saved. Following this, the Trust established the Country Houses Committee with James Lees-Milne at the important first Secretary who set the tone for years to come.  In the early years, Lees-Milne would travel the country meeting the many owners and starting a gentle conversation leading to more hard-headed negotiations – though some would approach the NT begging for them to take their houses such were their financial straits.

For many owners faced with the dramatic social changes after the wars, and their own impoverishment, the options were fairly stark; soldier on in an increasingly dilapidated house, rent or sell to a new resident owner, sell for demolition, or hand it over to the National Trust.  For many owners who were the latest in a line stretching back over hundreds of years the latter option was often the most appealing (especially as they could often continue living there), though many chose to take the other options leading to mass demolitions, particularly in the 1930s and 1950s.  Yet, as Lees-Milne acknowledged, his own enthusiasm meant, “I have to guard against a collector’s acquisitiveness.  It isn’t always to the advantage of a property to be swallowed by our capacious, if benevolent, maw.” (Diaries, 1 June 1945).  However, it was never an easy task as the rest of his entry for that day notes, “The lengths to which I have gone, the depths which I have plumbed, the concessions which I have (once most reluctantly) granted to acquire properties for the National Trust, will not all be known by that ungrateful body.  It might be shocked by the extreme zeal of its servant if it did.  Yet I like to think that the interest of the property, or building, rather than the Trust has been my objective.“. (Amusingly he finishes with “These pious reflections came to me in the bath this morning.“)

The troubled acquisition of Barrington Court had a profound impact on how the National Trust dealt with later offers.  Merlin Waterson in ‘The National Trust – The First Hundred Years‘ highlights that even thirty years later those with fears about unexpected costs for repairs and maintenance were citing Barrington Court in evidence.  Caught between the rock of their own very high standards and the hard place of not having limitless funds, the National Trust began insisting that any house they took on came with a sufficient endowment.  This was formalised in 1968 as the ‘Chorley formula’ (after Roger Chorley who created it and later served as chairman from 1991-1995) which calculates the endowment required, taking in to account expected high-level maintenance and repairs, likely revenues, workers wages and many other factors.

Initially though this meant that a strange paradox developed whereby the NT would only be able to accept houses from wealthy owners – who were unlikely to want or need to hand them over.  However, in 1937, Parliament enabled the National Trust to make money from its properties by allowing it to accept additional property, cash or securities to provide income producing endowments.  One of the first to do so was Philip Kerr himself who, in 1941, bequeathed Blicking Hall in Norfolk along with its content, more than one hundred other houses and cottages, and over 4,700-acres of woodland.  By the end of WWII, the NT owned 23 houses including West Wycombe Park and Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, and Polesden Lacey in Surrey, each of which had come with generous endowments.

Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

However, where owners didn’t have the money other sources had to be found, as the protracted negotiations around Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire proved.  This stunning neo-classical mansion of the Curzon family was designed by Robert Adam in the 1760s and has one of the finest collections of Chippendale furniture in the world.  Faced with crippling death duties and a need to pay the grandson a ten-percent inheritance (which he demanded regardless of the threat this posed to the house and estate), the 3rd Viscount Scarsdale opened negotiations with the Trust who determined that it would need a £6m endowment plus another £2.5m for immediate repairs.  Faced with the breakup and sale of the house and its collections, English Heritage, the National Trust, American donors, and the Curzon’s themselves all contributed. This neatly demonstrated the broad spectrum of public and private sources that now had to be called upon to meet obligations such as this – and the difficulties of marshalling such a diverse range each time an opportunity presented itself.

The Trust has been consistent in this policy even when offered fine houses such Heveningham Hall, designed by Sir Robert Taylor with interiors by Wyatt, which had been accepted by the Goverment from the Vanneck family in lieu of inheritance tax in 1970.  Without endowment the Trust refused to take ownership but were happy to manage it for five years whilst the Government found a buyer.  Conversely, when the Dryden family were looking to offload the 16th-century Canons Ashby in 1981 the newly established National Heritage Memorial Fund was able to provide the endowment to fund the family’s gift.

These cases have now formed the model for subsequent campaigns such as the impressive Tyntesfield in Somerset and recently Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland where a combination of grants and generous local support enabled them to raise £7m to repair and endow the property.

For many within the National Trust the thinking is now that they have enough houses – for them, current campaigns are mostly around the protection of landscape.  Yet, their obvious financial and political power means that when the need arises they are able to step up to ‘save’ a house.  However, as it is usually preferable that a house remain with the family, hopefully the careful trust arrangements many now have in place mean that increasingly they are able to stay in their home.  Perhaps more houses could have been saved if the National Trust had accepted more of those offered to it, but in reality it is difficult to see how they would have been able to fund so many, especially where the existing owners had proved just how difficult it was to stay financially afloat.  Rather than just saying ‘the National Trust can have it’ we all must be aware that it is not a simple solution and that the long-term care of our country houses requires exceptional planning and commitment – and, ideally, very deep pockets.

The National Trust’s policy on acquisitions [National Trust]