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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
Sir John Vanbrugh
SIR JOHN VANBRUGH (1664-1726), British dramatist and architect, was born in the parish of St Nicolas Aeons in the City of London, and christened on the 24th of January 1664. His grandfather, Gillis van Brugg, of Ghent, migrated to England in the reign of James I., was naturalized, resided as a merchant and was buried in the parish of St Stephen's Walbrook. The dramatist's father, Giles (1631-1689), a wealthy sugar baker, who married into the Carleton family, was driven from London by the plague and settled at Chester. The mother (Elizabeth Carleton, of the Dorchester family) survived to see her son famous; she died at Claygate, near Esher, in 1711, and was buried at Thames Ditton. After a few years at the King's School, Chester, John at nineteen was sent to France to study the arts; after two years' absence he returned to take up a commission in the regiment soon to be known as the 13th Foot. In the early autumn of 1690 Vanbrugh was arrested at Calais on a charge of espionage. The informant against him was a lady. He was imprisoned at Vincennes, but on the 1st of Feb. 1692, by a lettre de cachet, he was removed to the Bastille. On the 12th of November he found surety to the extent of one thousand pistoles, but was confined to the fortifications of Paris until his exchange was effected on the cartel. His enforced leisure was responsible for the first draft of the Provok'd Wife. Voltaire said in his Lettres sur les Anglais that he could not imagine what had gained such a comic writer the distinction of detention in such a grim fortress. As a matter of fact, a considerable number of English officers were arrested about this time on a similar charge, as may be seen from the Bastille archives.' For a time after his return he resumed his commission and was known as Captain Vanbrugh.
The production of Cibber's Love's Last Shift at the Theatre Royal in January 1696 kindled afresh his attachment to the comic muse. He thought it would be interesting to develop the situation upon which Cibber had rung down the curtain, and the result was The Relapse, " got, conceived and born in six weeks' space." It was given on Boxing Day 1696, with Cibber as Foppington, one of the three parts borrowed from the preceding comedy. The Sir Novelty Fashion of Cibber was developed in this play into Lord Foppington, who has been pronounced "the best fop ever brought upon the stage." The play has been revived in various forms: Sheridan adapted it in A Trip to Scarborough, and it inspired two modern versions in 1870 and 1890, The Man of Quality and Miss Tomboy. Aesop - produced at Drury Lane immediately after The Relapse - was an adaptation of Boursault's dramatic sermon on the same subject. It ran for a week only, but the success of The Relapse was so triumphant that Montague, afterwards Lord Halifax, asked at once for the Provok'd Wife for the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and it was produced at that theatre in May 1697. All that could be said in answer to those who condemned it on account of its unblushing libertinism was that Sir John Brute is sufficiently 1 Ravaisson; and Funck-Brentano, Lisle des prisonniers de la Bastille. brutal to drive any woman into rebellion, and that since the glorious days of. the Restoration a wife's rebellion and a wife's adultery were synonymous terms. The play was a complete triumph, and Brute was one of Garrick's great parts. Vanbrugh was fiercely attacked by Jeremy Collier for immorality in 1698, and wrote nothing more for the stage until 1700, when an adaptation of the Pilgrim of Beaumont and Fletcher was produced at Drury Lane. In this play, in the part of Alinda, Anne Oldfield scored her first success. Two years later appeared The False Friend, a version of Le Sage's Traitre puni. Other adaptations from the French were A Country House, from Dancourt's Maison de campagne; Confederacy (1705), from the same author's Bourgeoises d la mode; Squire Trelooby (1704), a version of Moliere's Monsieur de Pourceaugnac; and The Mis- take (1705), from Moliere's Depit amoureux. Collier's attack and the resulting movement must have been responsible in part for "Van" turning his attention to architecture. The demand for splendid country seats in the new Palladian style was steadily increasing, and his reputation as a modern wit was an introduction in itself. In 1702 he was entered as comptroller of the Royal Works (now the Board of Works, where several of his designs may still be seen). In 1703 he wrote to ask his friend Jacob Tonson to procure him a "Palladio," and in the same year he was a commissioner at Greenwich, where the secretary William Vanbrugh was a kinsman of his own, whom Evelyn had appointed at his request. In the meantime, Vanbrugh had been appointed architect to the earl of Carlisle, and the result, completed in 1714, was the Corinthian mansion of Castle Howard. The work is an extension of the Palladian plan introduced by Inigo Jones, with the addition of immense corridors in segmental colonnades leading from the main entrance to the wing blocks. From a scenic artist's point of view, it is a magnificent (and certainly his best) piece of work. The earl, then deputy earl-marshal, testified his satisfaction by procuring for Vanbrugh a high place in the College of Arms. In March 1704 he was actually promoted Clarenceux, though he not only knew nothing of heraldry but had openly ridiculed that grave science in Aesop. The indignant college protested in vain, and the architect stuck to his place. His next work was to prepare designs for Kneller Hall near Hounslow. But the success of Castle Howard now caused him to entertain the rash project of building a theatre in the Haymarket, from his own design, for the acting of his own plays. The joyous courage with which, having persuaded thirty people in the fashionable world to aid him in finding the money, and Congreve to aid him in finding the plays, he began to build in perfect unconsciousness of the danger before him, is the only passage in his life which may be called pathetic, save of course his struggle with the "wicked woman of Marlborough." The magnitude of Vanbrugh's architectural ideas grew as the work went on, and with the ideas the structure grew till a theatre meant for the delicate bijouterie work of polite comedy seemed growing to the proportions of the Roman Colosseum. Whether Congreve endeavoured to put a check upon his friend's architectural and authorial fervour does not appear. But it must be remembered that not only Vanbrugh's plays but his own were to be acted there, and that, although Congreve was a man of great sagacity, no man, not even he who pretended to set his gentility above his genius, is sagacious when confronted by the surpassing excellence of his own poems and plays. When at length the time came to test the acoustics of the pile, it was found to be sadly defective. What changes were made to rectify the errors of structure does not appear. The theatre was opened to the public with an Italian opera, which was followed by three of Moliere's comedies, and these by the Confederacy, Vanbrugh's masterpiece on the whole, though perhaps its finest scenes are not equal to the finest scenes in The Relapse. Vanbrugh at last withdrew from the disastrous speculation; Congreve had already withdrawn. But a man to whom Fortune had been so kind as she had been to Vanbrugh could hardly be depressed by any of her passing frowns. Queen Anne at once sent him abroad on an important state errand, and afterwards he was commissioned to build Blenheim. Upon the merits and demerits of this famous "hollowed quarry" there has been much conflict of opinion. As to the sarcasms by Swift, Walpole, Evans, and the rest, they are as nothing when set against Sir Joshua Reynolds's defence of Vanbrugh and his style. Blenheim Palace is probably the largest domestic building in England, and consists of three blocks, the centre containing the private living rooms, one wing the stables, and the other the kitchens and storehouses. It is planned on a colossal scale. Vanbrugh considered a building and the parts of a building as simply so much material for effect, without regard to their reasonable use and the necessary limitations of design. Thus he would support his main block by subordinate groups without considering for a moment the inconvenience that might be caused by the kitchen being removed by four hundred yards from the dining-room. Personal comfort was sacrificed to perspective. Windows were to adorn the elevation, not to light the interior; and, as Voltaire said, if the rooms had only been as wide as the walls were thick, the chateau would have been convenient enough. After Blenheim and Castle Howard, his next largest palace was probably Fleurs, near Kelso. His plans were only suitable to the largest kind of palace. Blenheim, however, was a source of great sorrow to the kindly dramatist. Though parliament had voted for the building of it, no provision had been made for the supplies. The queen while she lived paid them, and then Vanbrugh was left to the meanness of the duke of Marlborough, and afterwards to the insolence of the "wicked woman," who did her best to embitter his life. Besides Castle Howard and Blenheim, he built many other country mansions, such as Grimsthorpe and Duncombe Hall in Yorkshire, Eastbury in Dorsetshire, Seaton-Delaval in Northumberland, King's Weston near Bristol, Oulton Hall in Cheshire, old Claremont House at Esher, old Eaton Hall, Iver Grove, Bucks. He also restored Kimbolton Castle for the earl of Manchester. In 1716 he became architect to Greenwich Hospital.
In January 1719 Vanbrugh married Henrietta Maria, daughter of Colonel Yarborough of Heslington, and four years afterwards, at the accession of George I., he was knighted. He afterwards wrote again for the stage, and the unfinished fragment of the Journey to London (completed by Cibber as The Provok'd Husband in 1728) shows that his powers remained to the last as fine as ever. His married life was mostly spent at Blackheath, very probably in "Bastile House" on Maze Hill, repaired in 1904 and now known as Vanbrugh Castle. His wife died there at a great age in 1776, but "Van" himself died on the 26th of March 1726 in his modest town house, built in 1703 out of the ruins of Whitehall and satirized by Swift as the "goose pie." The site is occupied to-day by the War Office. The famous epitaph, "Lie heavy on him, earth," is attributed to Abel Evans. The best portrait of the dramatist is the kitcat by Kneller.
Vanbrugh's works were edited in 2 vols., 1893, by W. C. Ward (portraits). Select Plays were issued in the Mermaid Series (ed. A. E. H. Swaen) in 1896. See G. H. Lovegrove's Life, Works and Influence of Sir John Vanbrugh (1902), Max Dametz's Vanbrughs Leben and Werke (1898), and Swift's Works (Bohn), xii. 80 sq. (T. SE.)
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Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Sir John Vanbrugh'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/bri/s/sir-john-vanbrugh.html. 1910.