European Architecture Series
John Vanbrugh

Biography of English Baroque Architect.

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Blenheim Palace, England.
High point of the English Baroque.

John Vanbrugh (1664-1726)


John Vanbrugh's Architecture
English Buildings Designed by John Vanbrugh
Other Leading Baroque Architects

For a guide to terminology
see: Architecture Glossary.

John Vanbrugh's Architecture

As well as being a talented playwright and politician, John Vanbrugh was - along with Inigo Jones (1573-1652) and Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) one of the greatest architects of the short-lived English Baroque. Influenced by the design work of Louis Le Vau (1612-70), as well as by elements used by Andrea Palladio (1508-80) in Venetian Renaissance architecture, Vanbrugh's three most important contributions to Baroque architecture are Blenheim Palace (1705-22) in Oxfordshire, Castle Howard (1702-12) in Yorkshire, and Seaton Delaval Hall (1718-28) in Northumberland. In the eyes of other Baroque architects, however, his designs were somewhat controversial, due to their monumental size and impracticality. Like Wren, Vanbrugh was dependant on a support staff which in his case always included the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), who provided the practical ideas needed to realize the grandiose architecture of his boss. Like his older contemporary Wren, Vanbrugh was appointed Comptroller at the Royal Works, although he was was greatly overshadowed by Wren's successful designs for major London buildings, such as St Paul's Cathedral. Like Wren, however, his influence persisted into the era of late-18th century architecture.


After a colourful career writing controversial Restoration comedies for the stage, towards the end of the century Vanbrugh began to turn his attention, to architecture: completing a mini-tour of northern England in 1699, during which he visited and studied some of the great Elizabethan houses, such as: Burghley House, Wollaton Hall, Hardwick Hall and Bolsover Castle. In 1702, he designed Castle Howard in Yorkshire, for Lord Carlisle, a fellow member of the Kit-Cat Club in London. Although untrained himself, he was able to rely on the technical skills of Nicholas Hawksmoor, the highly experienced former assistant to the great architect Sir Christopher Wren. Together, John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor brought English Baroque to its peak, with a combination of Greek architecture and Baroque design. The Vanbrugh-Hawksmoor style is sometimes described as "heavy", but it compensates for this in its heroic scale. Through the offices of Lord Carlisle, who was head of the Treasury, Vanbrugh was appointed comptroller of the Queen's works in 1702. The following year he began work on the Queen's Theatre, in the Haymarket, London. Unfortunately, due to poor acoustics and various additional problems, the project proved a disaster, and cost him a large sum of money.

In 1705, Vanbrugh was commissioned by John Churchill (1650-1722), 1st Duke of Marlborough, to design Blenheim Palace, which had been gifted to him for his military victories in Europe. The building - named after Marlborough's greatest battle, was the most coveted architectural commission of Queen Anne’s reign, and (thanks to Hawksmoor) proved to be a masterpiece. Alas, the Duke of Marlborough was too mean to pay for the palace's running costs, while the Duchess - in Vanbrugh's eyes, an insolent and wicked woman - proved impossible to deal with. All this led to enormous acrimony concerning costs and payments, and Vanbrugh resigned from the project in 1717, five years before its completion.

In fairness, it should be noted that, while Vanbrugh assumed he was designing a national monument, the Duchess wanted a comfortable family home, and the fact that the kitchen was located four hundred yards away from the dining room did not help. Neither Vanbrugh, nor any royal advisor had foreseen the huge costs involved in running what was the largest domestic building in England! Despite all this, and the criticism of leading public figures such as Jonathan Swift and Horace Walpole, Vanbrugh's architecture was later stoutly defended by Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), President of the Royal Academy.

Vanbrugh was knighted by George I in 1714 and reappointed Comptroller of Royal Works in 1715. In 1716 he became architect to Greenwich Hospital. At the same time he continued to design other country mansions, such as Oulton Hall in Cheshire; Grimsthorpe Castle and Duncombe Hall in Yorkshire; Seaton-Delaval for Admiral George Delaval in Northumberland; King's Weston near Bristol; Eastbury in Dorsetshire; old Claremont House at Esher, Surrey; and Eaton Hall, Iver Grove, in Buckinghamshire. He also renovated Kimbolton Castle in Huntingdon for the Earl of Manchester. The settings of these houses were important, and Vanbrugh took a growing interest in landscape design, with out ever receiving credit for his garden architecture.

Buildings Designed by John Vanbrugh

These include:

- Castle Howard, Yorkshire (1702-12)
- Blenheim Palace, Woodstock (1705-22)
- Kimbolton Castle, Cambridgeshire (1707-9)
- Kings Weston House, Bristol (1710-25)
- Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (1718-28)
- Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire (1722-26)

Other Leading Baroque Architects

In addition to those architects cited above, the best known building designers of the Baroque movement included:

Francois Mansart (1590-1666)
Andre Le Notre (1613-1700)
Jules Hardouin Mansart (1646-1708)
See also: French Baroque Artists

Vignola (1507-73)
Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)
Bernini (1598-1680)
Francesco Borromini (1599-1667)
See also: Italian Baroque Artists.

Andreas Schluter (1664-1714)
Balthasar Neumann (1687-1753)
Hans Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff (1699-1753)
See also: German Baroque Art (1550-1750) and German Baroque Artists.

Alonso Cano (1601-1667)
See also: Spanish Baroque Artists.

Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700-1771)
See also: Petrine Art (1686-1725).


• For more about English Baroque building designs, see: Homepage.

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