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Sir John Vanbrugh - Summary

Date of Birth: 24/01/1664

Date of Death: 1726

Gender: male

Notable dates

  • Building Castle Howard house and landscape (1699-1726)

Occupation: Architect


Sir John Vanbrugh's work as a Landscape Architect

John Vanbrugh was born in 1664 in London, the son of a cloth merchant of Dutch descent called Giles Vanbrook. He grew up in the Roman town of Chester and initially followed in his father's footsteps as a merchant, becoming a factor for the East India Company in Surat, India in 1683. The job was clearly not to his taste for he had returned home to take a commission as an ensign in Lord Huntingdon's regiment at Hounslow by 1686, before resigning eight months later to accompany distant relations Robert and Peregrine Bertie, travelling on the Continent. The three men were in France at the outbreak of the war with the United Provinces in 1688, when Vanbrugh was arrested and accused of having spoken in support of William of Orange. In conjunction with the Dutch derivation of his name this was enough for him to be detained, although the real reason for his imprisonment appears to have been the desire to hold him hostage to assure the safety of a French spy who was in London. Vanbrugh remained immured for four years, being transferred in 1691 to the Chateau de Vincennes and then to the Bastille in Paris. He was finally released and allowed to sail back to England in 1693 where, with encouragement from his friend William Congreve, he became a playwright, staging The Relapse to public approbation at Drury Lane in 1696. This brought him to the attention of the Whig Kit Cat Club and member Charles Montagu, who commissioned his second play, The Provok'd Wife (1697). Several members of the Kit Cat were distant relations of Vanbrugh's and his aristocratic connections meant that he was accepted into the club in the late 1690s as an equal; the Kit Cat was to be the source of much of his income over the following decades.

Vanbrugh had returned to a world where financial and political revolutions were transforming English society; it was a place of opportunity. The new science was generating an atmosphere of enquiry and a desire to further the knowledge of the Ancients, and it resulted in an invigorated demand for classical texts of all kinds. Impoverished authors found employment in translating the classics into English financed by the patronage of the rich, whilst an emerging merchant and professional class and a burgeoning publishing industry furthered the demand for their work, and made it more easily accessible. Clubs and coffee houses fostered discussion of science and the arts and brought men together that had previously been separate; there were new chances to make money from trade and in a nascent finance industry. The advent of a standing army meant that individuals no longer needed to bear arms, the protection of liberty became a commercial transaction and men had free time to consider matters of taste and politeness. Finally, the Enlightenment humanists questioned the role of the Church, reassessing man's place in the world and his relationship with Nature. It was against this backdrop that Vanbrugh decided to reinvent himself as an architect of buildings and of landscapes.

Vanbrugh was undoubtedly an intelligent man with wide-ranging artistic talents and an enquiring mind; his character suggests that it would have taken little thought before he proposed himself as an architect, and as a rival to William Talman who was Comptroller of the Kings Works. The 1690s saw a burgeoning appetite for building country houses and Talman had submitted proposals to another member of the Kit Cat Club, the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, for his new project at Henderskelfe in Yorkshire in 1699. But Carlisle was not happy with Talman's designs and soon afterwards he took the extraordinary decision to replace him with Vanbrugh. Vanbrugh created, with the help of Nicholas Hawksmoor, what has been described as a Baroque masterpiece at Castle Howard, and indeed much of his later building has been widely associated with the English Baroque. However, recent scholarship has highlighted the Palladian elements of Vanbrugh's architecture, most notably the use of symmetry and proportion in his buildings and in the rooms, and the embedding of the house in the landscape - a defining feature of Andrea Palladio's work in the Veneto in sixteenth-century Italy. Vanbrugh was to take Palladio's book Il Quattro Libri, and use it to design both houses and grounds that were founded originally on the work of the ancient Roman writer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (known as Vitruvius).

In 1721 Vanbrugh claimed the landscaping at Castle Howard to be his own, writing to the Duke of Newcastle that he had created the gardens out of ‘bushes boggs and bryars'. In fact the grounds were a combination of his and Carlisle's ideas. The replacement in Ray Wood of George London's star design with an informal meandering of paths amongst the ancient trees, with a scattering of classical statues, cascades and fountains was most likely influenced by Carlisle's tour of Italy, but the inventive wall surrounding the garden was Vanbrugh's. He was the first to use the ha-ha to encircle a garden; it consisted of a high wall sunk into a ditch so that it appeared much lower on the garden side (see diagram in the ‘images' section). This ha-ha was an effective barrier against animals, whilst the low wall on the garden side permitted views of the surrounding country; military style bastions were built at strategic viewing points (the only extant Vanbrugh bastions are at Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland). Although Vanbrugh never went to Italy, he did see the Maréchal de Vauban's military fortifications in France which had a similar form; we can also find examples of this type of barrier in Palladio's work. The structure of the Vanbrugh ha-ha had its roots in the writing of Vitruvius, whilst its use and meaning in the garden came from Pliny The Younger (first century AD) mediated by the Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti in the fifteenth century; it was indicative of the new understanding of Nature that was associated with the Enlightenment.

At the end of the seventeenth century polite society became immersed in all things classical; from literature and art to philosophy and science. The writing of Pliny, Vitruvius, Alberti and Palladio was recovered in Latin, translated into French and later into English. Men had busts of themselves sculpted wearing Roman togas; they wanted to be depicted as members of the new Roman Republic that was early eighteenth-century England. They built ‘villas' along the Thames on the outskirts of London and retired to the country to manage their farms and write, in emulation of Pliny the Younger. Neo-classicism pervaded all aspects of society and in gardens there was a change of understanding of the words Nature and natural; Nature was seen to embody both the order and symmetry imparted by a designer, as well as the wildness of a country untouched by Art (in other words untouched by man). The appreciation of wild Nature and its association with the stimulation of the imagination (from the philosophy of empiricism) led to the opening of gardens to the surrounding countryside, the preservation of pre-existing woodlands and the building of lakes (all of which were features of Vanbrugh's work). Instead of being a symbol of man's control over Nature, as it had been in the formal garden of the seventeenth century, geometry in the garden became a reference to the innate order of Nature (as seen by Vitruvius in the perfect proportions of man) and thus took on a covert form - it literally went underground. Whilst some geometry could still be seen in sections of the garden, rectangular garden rooms clustered close to the house and bold radiating avenues gave way to an underlying framework that tied a landscape scheme together. This change was first demonstrated at Castle Howard. Vanbrugh's innovative use of the natural topography to hide and reveal gateways and obelisks along the approach roads to the house, together with his apparent scattering of romantic temples, have obscured the geometric skeleton that ties the elements of the Castle Howard landscape together; as a result, the grounds at Castle Howard have been interpreted as ‘transitional', as a move towards the landscape garden associated with Lancelot Brown. However it is important to view early eighteenth-century gardens as unique, not as a step towards a future form that could never have been envisaged by the men making them; the Enlightenment garden was the distinctive product of the culture, the politics and the people of the time.

Vanbrugh used both overt and hidden geometry in his schemes; his striking Obelisk Parterre on the south front of Castle Howard was not universally admired, but his use of classical symbolism in the form of pyramids, obelisks and Vitruvian temples was to be copied in many gardens over the coming decades. The ha-ha would be used to advantage in the bastion garden at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire known as the Woodwork (from 1705); it then appeared in Vanbrugh's own garden at Chargate in Surrey (from 1709) and at Stowe in Buckinghamshire (from 1716). By the 1720s Vanbrugh's ha-ha was a commonplace; the low wall on the garden side would eventually disappear creating the illusion that there was no barrier at all (see the excellent example at Houghton in Norfolk). His use of underlying geometrical frameworks was to be taken up by Charles Bridgeman and was evident in Bridgeman's designs at Hackwood in Hampshire (1720s) and Gobions in Hertfordshire (1730s); such hidden frames persisted in designed landscapes into the late eighteenth century.

Vanbrugh's most important landscape projects were: Castle Howard, Yorkshire (1700-1726); Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (1705-1716); Kimbolton, Cambridgeshire (1707-1710); Kings Weston, Avon (1710-1723); Chargate (later Claremont), Surrey (from 1709-1726); Grimsthorpe, Lincolnshire (1711-1712); Duncombe, Yorkshire (from 1713); Sacombe, Hertfordshire (1715-1718); Stowe, Buckinghamshire (1716-1726); Seaton Delaval, Northumberland (1719-1726); Nottingham Castle, Nottinghamshire (1719); Vanbrugh Castle, Greenwich (1720s); Lumley Castle, Co. Durham (1721)

Vanbrugh should be credited with the following innovations in garden design:

• The first use of the bastioned ha-ha to surround a garden, the proliferation of the military garden style and the inclusion of fields and forests as a part of a landscape scheme (Castle Howard 1705, Blenheim Palace 1705, Stowe from 1716)

• The promotion of architectural features formed out of living plants in gardens, known as ‘architecture in green' (parterre at Stowe, from 1716)

• The idea of flooding a river valley to form a natural lake (Welbeck Abbey, 1703, Blenheim 1707; neither executed)

• The use of natural topography to create a dramatic effect (Castle Howard approach roads from 1699)

• The inclusion of large bodies of water outside the garden as a part of the overall scheme for a landscape (Kings Weston from 1710 Severn Estuary, Seaton Delaval from 1719 North Sea)

• Embedding houses in the countryside, in direct opposition to the seventeenth-century style of placing a disconnected building on the landscape (all of his projects)

• Pushing geometry underground and using the natural landscape as a background to his buildings (all of his projects)

All of these innovations mark Vanbrugh as a neo-classicist, a man of the British Enlightenment. It is important therefore that we do not categorize his landscape designs by considering only the Baroque decoration of his buildings.

Downes, Kerry, Sir John Vanbrugh: A Biography (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1987)

Dalton, Caroline, Sir John Vanbrugh and the Vitruvian Landscape (Routledge, 2012)

‘Vanbrugh, Sir John (1664-1726)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004 [accessed 8 Oct 2007]

Contributor: Dr. Caroline Dalton, University of Bristol

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