In this series Philip Wilkinson – author, architectural historian and denizen of the wonderful English Buildings Blog – takes us on a journey round some buildings with rather unlikely creators…
Son of a tradesman and grandson of a refugee Flemish merchant, John Vanbrugh began his career as a soldier, won a commission in Lord Huntingdon’s regiment, and was imprisoned in the Bastille as a spy. Back home in London, he cut a flamboyant figure in society and became a playwright, popular for his Restoration comedies of the 1690s (The Relapse, The Provok’d Wife). Then in the early years of the 18th century he began to practise as an architect, starting (starting!) with Castle Howard, the enormous house of the Earl of Carlisle, and continuing with equally grand piles such as Blenheim Palace and Seaton Delaval. The style of the grand houses has been called baroque, although the monumental architecture of these buildings – all ponderous arches, rusticated walls, and vaulted halls – has little to do with the curvaceous cherub-infested baroque of continental Europe.
When the time came to build his own house, what did Vanbrugh produce? Another monumental mansion? Not quite. Thirty years before people like Horace Walpole began to put up medieval revival buildings, Vanbrugh designed himself a castle – albeit a rather un-medieval one, built of brick and with modern luxury within. Amazingly, it has survived, on top of Maze Hill in Greenwich, southeast London. The original building is to the left, a tall structure with central stair tower and square flanking towers. There are tall narrow windows too, not quite narrow enough to look like genuine medieval arrow-slits, but near enough to give one the idea.
When the architect married, he extended the house adding a wing to the right – the current right-hand wing is partly this extension, partly a further, post-Vanbrugh addition. The result of Vanbrugh’s extension (still in brick, still vaguely castle-like) was an asymmetrical building, something very unusual for a grand house of the early-18th century and seeming to anticipate the Picturesque movement that got going much later, in the 1780s. That’s just one more surprise from a man whose life that was never entirely predictable, who was never afraid to shock. People probably laughed, but the laugh was on them.