The versatile Vanbrugh…

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.


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15 thoughts on “The versatile Vanbrugh…

  1. Worm
    April 3, 2012 at 10:27

    I know of this building through it’s appearance in one of my favourite ever British movies – Mona Lisa

    as a building it’s certainly rather different in ambition than Blenheim isn’t it?

      April 3, 2012 at 12:26

      Gosh, yes, I’d forgotten that it was one of the locations for Mona Lisa. I feel a DVD purchase coming on.

    April 3, 2012 at 11:38

    Interesting use of brick, cost consideration perhaps? Seaton Delaval must be the strangest hoose outwith the National Trust’s handbook, even allowing for it’s suffering from the slings and arrows etc. Thought by the locals to be the prime candidate for demolition it sat there, darkly brooding among the desolation that was the southern edge of the south east Northumberland coalfield and close to Whitley Bay, the Sorrento of the north. As it was Vanbrugh’s swan song, half way thro’ he hung up his theodolite, he can be forgiven. Wikipedia states that it lay empty until the nineteen eighties, this is incorrect, it was used in the late seventies as the venue for those awfull ‘Elizabethan feasts’, all fingers, wenches and mead, the equivelant of today’s Prague hen weekend. In error I agreed to hold my companies Xmas do at the hall and was astounded, who would have thought that Vanbrugh would have insisted upon Sanderson wallpaper and UPVC windows, the joint was, putting it mildly, a dung heap.

    April 3, 2012 at 12:33

    Seaton Delaval has had very mixed fortunes, but the fingers, wenches, and mead era sounds like the nadir. The house would have made a wonderful ruin after the 19th century fire.

    John Halliwell
    April 3, 2012 at 16:37

    There was a time when an invitation to visit a house or castle built of brick would have met with the response: “If it ain’t made of stone ripped from the Welsh hills and dragged, shoved and cursed every inch of the way to the building site by a small army, and its presence thereafter celebrated each Midsummer’s day, I’m not interested.” I then discovered Arley Hall in Cheshire, took one look and conceded ‘brick is beautiful’, especially red brick:

    I was astonished to discover that the complete rebuild of the hall in the 19th century used 515,000 bricks from the old house. And the builders used a lot more made from clay dug close to the house. That strikes me as a heck of a lot of bricks, and don’t they look splendid?

    Apologies for that deviation from Vanbrugh and his wonderful creations, Philip, but I just had to compare the look of Arley’s bricks with those used at Maze Hill.

      April 3, 2012 at 17:47

      Oh, I like bricks when they’re used with style. The medieval bricks of Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire are pretty good, too.

      April 3, 2012 at 19:19

      Wow that Arley does look rather fine John

    John Halliwell
    April 4, 2012 at 06:57

    Thanks for the pointer to Tattershall Castle, Philip. It looks very impressive. I always feel that snow on the ground and a cloudless sky adds considerably to the beauty of a magnificent red brick building, especially one as unique as this:,r:18,s:0,i:105

    I really must learn how to convert URLs to a few words.

    Arley is a grand place, Worm. The main attraction for my first visit was the magnificent herbaceous border, apparently one of the finest in Europe:

    But it is that red brick building that sucks me in.

      April 4, 2012 at 08:36

      Love the photograph of Tattershall. The light does interesting things to the colour of the bricks, which looker redder in the summer sun.

    April 4, 2012 at 07:29

    I’ve obviously been living under a rock at the bottom of the sea for the last 30 years as I had no idea that ‘Elizabethan Feasts’ were in vogue back in the loadsamoney era – not sure why you sound so sniffy about it Malty, as my base instincts tell me it would be quite fun. I like eating with my fingers on the odd occasions I am allowed to by ‘er indoors; serving wenches and mead sound top-drawer to me; and what could be wrong with a long meal of civet of hare, a quarter stag, loin of veal, a roe deer, a pig, sturgeon in parsley, a kid goat, a pair of heron, a leveret and a wild boar – with goslings for afters? Sounds good to me…..and if you stick to the specials, nobody gets hurt.

      April 4, 2012 at 08:44

      Ah, ‘The tongues of carps, dormice, and camels’ heels, Boiled i’th’ spirit of Sol’ (Ben Jonson, The Alchemist). One can but dream.

      Now, back to my muesli…

      April 4, 2012 at 10:07

      Mahlerman, that presupposes that the food was cooked (or roasted) the wenches tidy and the mead acceptable. The nosh was type 2 Little Chef, the totty type 2 destroyers, the Lindisfarne mead was warmed up Castrol R, and like the group, only good for adding to creosote, prior to painting the fence.

      I was going to say that the totty was all botty and no titty however, that would be a sexist remark.

    John Halliwell
    April 4, 2012 at 11:52

    In 1976, my employer hosted a technical training visit by a group of east Europeans. In an attempt to give them a flavour of English life we immediately took them for a meal at a local Chinese; a ridiculous choice as there was a Thai place two doors down. As that arrow seemed to miss the target, a few days later we all clambered into mini-coaches for a journey to a stately home in Lancashire. It was an Elizabethan evening with plenty of fowl, mead, and slack-bloused wenches, the latter most adept at carrying before them enormous Tudor dumplings. I have never witnessed so much rabid salivating in my life. Our guests were overjoyed to experience this fragment of Olde England and the evening was a riotous success; so much so that I was dreading a reciprocal visit with an invitation to a ‘Vlad the Impaler Evening’ in a strip-joint in downtown Budapest.

      April 4, 2012 at 15:17

      John, I guess they had shiny demob suits and sprouted Sam Beckett hairdo’s, grinned a lot and their conversation was rapid-fire and excitable, the mere glimpse of an ankle sending them into space. Supply and demand dear boy, supply and demand.
      Junior ran a styling studio in Rüsselsheim, The Koreans, wishing to dial into their designs the European factor had made contact and paid a visit. Shepherding them around for a night out in Wiesbaden they descended into an alcoholic fug and demanded to be taken to a spa, the town has several, they had been told that “the round eyed women were naked”. Among the Koreans it was apparently a trophy, naked burdz with circular optics. Delivering them to the door and bunging a wad of Euro’s at them he bid goodnight. They were, he found out later, ejected, wandering around mob-handed like a bunch of Mickey Rooneys in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

    John Halliwell
    April 4, 2012 at 16:47

    Malty, I omitted to state that the most rabid salivators were my British colleagues (I excuse myself from this on grounds that self-incrimination is a luxury I can’t afford). The finest wench present was not the 16th century Mistress Fulsome, whose bounty was a sight to behold, but the astonishingly beautiful, multilingual interpreter who, for a full week, caused havoc wherever her services were required. I may have imagined it but I’m sure that even fast-running production machinery missed a beat when she appeared.

    To keep this whole thing on topic, I can state with utter certainty that Vanbrugh would have been so impressed by the interpreter that he would have told John Churchill to get Wren to build Blenheim as he was off to knock-up a red-brick castle for a gorgeous east European blond

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