Vanbrugh, Sir John

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Vanbrugh, Sir John (1664-1726): English Architect and Playwright.

A writer of popular plays, a theater designer, and the chief architect of two English palaces, Castle Howard and Blenheim, Vanbrugh had a career spanning one of the most culturally rich periods in history. He descended from refugee Protestants, who eventually established themselves in trade in London in the early seventeenth century; he also was faithful to their partisan Whig beliefs. His mother Elizabeth came from an aristocratic family, the Berties, whose connections Vanbrugh found useful in his maturity. Brought up in Chester, where the family moved when he was three, he was apparently educated in the local grammar school, which seems to be the sum of his formal education. His first career was as a soldier, rising eventually to Captain of a regiment, which may account for the frequent military imagery in his plays.

Arrested in Calais in 1688, probably while carrying messages to or from William of Orange, he spent four years in French prisons including a stint in the notorious Bastille and donjon of Vincennes, which may have sparked his architectural interests; some scholars speculate that he began writing plays in these uncongenial setting. Released in 1692, he returned to London and soon began frequenting the theater where he saw Cibber, Colley’s Love’s Last Shift (1695). This very popular play germinated in his mind into a sequel, The Relapse (1697), a typical Restoration sex comedy that Cibber himself acted in to great acclaim as the archetypal fop. In the character of Miss Hoyden, Vanbrugh added to the theater vocabulary a type of boisterous and irreverent personality. Vanbrugh now established himself in London as the new farceur from whom were expected great things.

In the nineties he churned out a variety of theatrical wares, mostly adaptations from the French theater. He produced one other notable play The Provok’d Wife (1697), with a brilliant cast: the part of Sir John Brute being played by Thomas Betterton, Lady Brute by Elizabeth Barry and Belinda by Anne Bracegirdle. His risqué wit infuriated Jeremy Collier, whose Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698) made The Relapse the poster boy for the clergyman’s dyspeptic view of Restoration comedy of manners. Vanbrugh responded in the same year with his own tract, A Short Vindication of the Relapse and the Provok’d Wife in a futile defense of his art. However, he wrote no more original plays, importing the plots for his adaptations mostly from France (Boursault, Le Sage, Molière and Dancourt) in a series of confections that almost never appear in modern West End or Broadway theaters.

As a playwright, he is not easily categorized, nor in the first rank. His humane-style comedy is rooted in the cynical and urbane Restoration world of fools, marriage-shy aristocrats, libidinous women and libertines. Yet his treatment of brutal husbands and poorly-prepared youth for the rigors of bourgeois marriage point to the Miltonic ideal of companionate unions. His wit, though not as rapier as Wycherley or Congreve, is clever and universal enough to sustain laughter in a modern audience. Some of his characters, especially fops and ingénues, are memorable contributions to theatrical traditions.

His other contribution to the stage was architectural; he designed and built the Queen’s Theatre or Italian Operahouse in the Haymarket in 1705, and Vanbrugh added to his other accomplishments the job of impresario, introducing Italian opera to an English audience. Unfortunately, the acoustics were found wanting, and two years later he withdrew from management of the enterprise after losing a great deal of money.

His other career as architect began with the patronage of fellow whig Lord Carlisle—both were members of the Kit-Cat Club—to build Castle Howard (1698-1714). As in the case of the theater, Vanbrugh was inspired by French baroque designs as well as Christopher Wren’s English churches in producing the Yorkshire country house. This stunning success led to other commissions notably Blenheim in Oxfordshire, the palace built to honor the Duke of Marlborough’s victories on the battlefield. His other assignments include houses at Seaton Delaval, Esher, Kimbolton Castle, Grimsthorpe Castle and his own so-called “goose pie” house (Swift, Jonathan’s coinage) in Whitehall. He often collaborated with Hawksmoor, Nicholas, though Vanbrugh was more the designer of the buildings and grounds; Hawksmoor apparently transformed Vanbrugh’s ideas into stone, bricks and mortar. His work was eclectic and thought of at the time as “incorrect”; that is, not following a set style like Palladianism. His boldness it may be speculated comes partly from close scrutiny of buildings in Paris, theater scenery, conversations with Wren, etc. but also his sense of drama that he brought to grand building and landscape perspectives—as an inspired amateur.

Honors and wealth came after the death of Queen Anne in 1713, whose Tory government blocked advancement. Upon the succession of George I in 1714, Vanbrugh was knighted (through the influence of Marlborough), made Comptroller of the Board of Works by Lord Carlisle and received other court appointments. A staunch member of the Kit-Cats, Vanbrugh had Kneller paint his portait; Richardson, Samuel produced another in 1725. His final years were spent wrangling over wages and payments with the termagant Duchess of Marlborough. Cibber completed in 1728 the last unfinished play, A Journey to London (begun about 1716) under the title The Provok’d Husband. Though his plays were often revised and expurgated, Vanbrugh’s comedies became a standard fixture of the eighteenth-century theater’s repertory and immensely influential on subsequent playwrights.

Further reading:

Kerry Downes, Sir John Vanbrugh, 1987.

Frank McCormick, Sir John Vanbrugh: The Playwright as Architect, 1991.

Arthur J. Weitzman