Sir John Vanbrugh: Architect, Playwright, Soldier, Spy

John Vanbrugh c1718: portrait
attributed to Thomas Murray





‘There is something so catching to the ear, so easy to the memory, in all he writ, that it has been observed by all the actors of my time, that the style of no other author whatsoever gave their memory less trouble than that of Sir John Vanbrugh’.
[Colley Cibber]








John Vanbrugh was born in London in 1663/64, the eldest son and one of 19 children of Giles and Elizabeth Vanbrugh, themselves the descendants of Flemish religious refugees from the previous century. The family moved to Chester in 1667, possibly as a result of the Great Fire which had destroyed most of the city of London in 1666, where the young Vanbrugh evidently had a good education, possibly at the King’s School. 

Giles Vanbrugh made his living as a sugar refiner, but his eldest son appears to have had no wish to follow in his father’s footsteps, and instead secured a military commission in the foot regiment of the Earl of Huntington, an aristocratic relative of his mother. He resigned his commission the following year after the regiment had been posted on a semi-permanent basis to Guernsey in the Channel Islands, and sought a further military appointment with another of his mother’s relatives, the Earl of Abingdon. But Abingdon fell out of favour with the king, James II, who dismissed him. Then, in September 1688, Vanbrugh surfaced in France, where he was arrested as a spy and imprisoned in the Bastille.

What Vanbrugh was doing in France is not clear, though tradition has it that he went there to study architecture. However, incarceration in the notorious prison was not as rigorous as we might think. Privileged prisoners were provided with four-course meals and three bottles of wine a day. and were allowed to keep pets and play cards and billiards in their furnished private ‘cells‘. They were even assigned a personal servant to run their errands outside of the prison. And if any of the prisoners had literary ambitions then the Bastille was an ideal place to pursue their creativity, “not unthankful for the quiet they enjoyed”. Vanbrugh clearly took advantage of the opportunity, reading widely in French drama and drafting a play of his own, which was later to become The Provok’d Wife.

Colley Cibber as
Lord Foppington
Vanbrugh was suddenly released from the Bastille in November 1692 and returned to London where generous provisions from his father’s will made him a rich and independent man. Some time after his return he wrote his first play The Relapse, in part to satisfy a debt to Sir Thomas Skipwith, a manager of the Drury Lane theatre. The Drury Lane was suffering financially from the opening of a rival theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields by the famous actor Thomas Betterton, and Vanbrugh’s play proved a godsend, keeping the theatre afloat for the following two or three years. It was written as a sequel to Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift, and retained the character Sir Novely Fashion, now elevated to the peerage as Lord Foppington, with Cibber himself in the part. Actress Mary Kent played the part of Worthy, a gentleman of the town, in keeping with the current tradition of women in ‘breeches’ roles. 

The Relapse had its first performance on 21 November 1696 and was followed a few months later by Aesop, a play reworked by Vanbrugh from a French original. His next original play was The Provok’d Wife, which he had begun in the Bastille, and which he gave to Betterton’s company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It opened in April 1697 and confirmed Vanbrugh as one of the most popular dramatist’s of his day. But it was to be his last original work, the rest adaptations of French comedies, much to the anger of Voltaire, who complained that the English had disguised and ruined Molière’s plays.

Vanbrugh’s plays were also under attack from the English puritans, one of whom, Jeremy Collier, produced a pamphlet entitled A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage. Vanbrugh was Collier’s main target, accusing him of bawdiness and blasphemy. The attack intensified with three leading actors being prosecuted by magistrates ‘for using indecent expressions’ on stage. The wit and elegance of Restoration comedy was evidently lost on the puritans who saw only uninhibited bawdiness and the exploitation of sexual relationships.

Vanbrugh's opera house in the
Haymarket: the Queen's Theatre
At about this time Vanbrugh turned his attention to architecture, and in 1700 sent a model of his design for Castle Howard to Hampton Court, and work was commenced on the laying of the foundation for the new building. In 1702 he was commissioned Captain in Lord Huntington’s Foot Regiment, a year which also saw the première of a new play The False Friend. And in 1704 the foundation stone was laid for a new theatre in the Haymarket which Vanbrugh had designed and which he was to manage with William Congreve. Unaccountably he had failed to equip the theatre with adequate acoustics, an oversight which proved disastrous. Congreve pulled out of the partnership, and in 1706 Vanbrugh let the theatre to impresario Owen McSwinney, then two years later, sold out to him completely. McSwinney’s first move was to improve the acoustics.

In the year 1702 Vanbrugh had also been appointed to the position of Comptroller of the Board of Works under Sir Christopher Wren. His high patronage as well as his growing reputation as an architect led to his commission for the design of Blenheim Palace, which was to be presented to the Duke of Marlborough as a mark of royal favour. Built in a flamboyant baroque style, the work was beset was problems which developed between Queen Anne and the quick tempered Duchess of Marlborough, who also became hostile towards Vanbrugh. It was not completed in 1723. The work at Castle Howard took even longer, and was not finished until 1742, sixteen years after Vanbrugh’s death.

In 1714 Vanbrugh was knighted and hoped to succeed Wren as Surveyor General. But he was passed over by the King in favour of William Benson, who managed to unseat almost all the members of the Board of Works bar Vanbrugh. Then Benson fell foul of his own machinations and was dismissed himself in much disgrace. In 1719 Vanbrugh was again passed over by the King, this time for an amateur architect with almost no experience. A mortified Vanbrugh wrote a complaint to the Duke of Newcastle, stating: “’Tis one of the hardest pieces of Fortune that ever fell on anybody”.

Vanbrugh's Pyramid at Stowe
By this time Vanbrugh had married Henrietta Maria Yarburgh, and he devoted the rest of his time to family life while continuing to practice as an architect. His last design was the Great Pyramid in the gardens at Stowe and which was inscribed in Latin: ‘Among the great number of buildings designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in these gardens Cobham desired this pyramid to be sacred to his memory’. However, by a twisted turn of fate, the pyramid was later demolished, and even the architect’s vault in St. Stephen Walbrook, a church designed by Wren, was walled over in the nineteenth century. But his lasting memorials are his comedy masterpieces The Relapse and The Provok’d Wife, his palaces at Castle Howard and Blenheim, and the opinion of his admirers:
“No person ever lived or died with so few enemies as Sir John Vanbrugh, owing to his pleasant wit and unaffected good humour”. [M. Noble]
"We shall look in vain for the vigour of a Dryden, or the exquisiteness of a Congreve, but for a breath of goodhumoured and spacious England that we hope will never die, we may settle ourselves in our chairs with a book of Vanbrugh's letters or plays". [Bonamy Dobrée]

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