Guide to Sir John Vanbrugh

Sir John Vanbrugh was the outstanding country-house architect of the early 18th century responsible for the two greatest commissions of the time: Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. A flexible designer, he characteristically worked in a boldly abstracted Classical style informed by contemporary European Baroque architecture.

Many of his buildings incorporate the elements of castle architecture, such as battlements, towers and compact residential plans. With his strong Protestant and Whig sympathies, Vanbrugh undoubtedly aimed to create by this combination of medieval and Classical forms modern houses within a self-consciously historical and English architectural tradition. A gentleman amateur, his archi- tectural work was deeply indebted to the expertise of an associate and friend, the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Early life

Vanbrugh was the eldest surviving son  of a cloth merchant of Flemish Protestant ancestry and a well-connected English gentlewoman. He was born in London, but his parents had moved to Chester by 1667, where he grew up. Vanbrugh first attempted to pursue a career as a merchant, and, in 1683, he sailed to India as a factor in the East India Company.

This life did not agree with him, nor did his brief experience of soldiering in 1686, and he joined the household of an aristocratic kinsman, James Bertie, 1st Earl of Abingdon. When travelling in France with the earl’s nephew in 1688, he was arrested and spent some years in prison, at the end of which time he was on parole in Paris and able to observe the city’s architecture. After his return to England in 1693, he briefly served as a marine officer in the navy.

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Then, in 1696, he began a successful writing career when his first play The Relapse was performed in Drury Lane. In this period, he also joined the celebrated Kit Kat Club, from whose Whig aristocratic membership came many of his architectural commissions.

Architectural career

In 1699, as a man in his mid thirties and apparently without any previous architectural experience, Vanbrugh took control of the largest architectural commission in the kingdom: a massive new house for the Earl of Carlisle (a fellow Kit Kat Club member) at Henderskelf in Yorkshire, now familiar as Castle Howard. It is clear that, in this operation, he was dependent on the practical experience of Nicholas Hawksmoor, a seasoned architect who had trained in the service of Sir Christopher Wren. In preparation for the work, Vanbrugh claimed to have seen ‘most of the great houses of the North’.

Through the Earl of Carlisle’s interest, he became Comptroller of the Queen’s Works, the deputy in charge of royal building, in 1702, and, in 1703, was appointed to the college of heralds. The latter post helps explain his delight in heraldry as a form  of architectural ornament. He also opened a new theatre in the Haymarket in 1704, although the venture was not a success. In the same year, Vanbrugh was approached by the Duke of Marlborough to design a new residence at Woodstock in Oxfordshire.

Originally planned as a private undertaking, the new building was vastly expanded after it came to be underwritten by the government in gratitude for the great victory won by the Duke over the French and Bavarians at Blenheim. Again, Vanbrugh worked on Blenheim Castle as it was initially called with Hawksmoor. The project was dogged by personal and national politics, and Vanbrugh resigned from it in 1716.

Later houses

In 1707, Vanbrugh undertook his first commission independently from Hawksmoor: the repair of Kimbolton Castle. He determined to give this medieval building ‘something of the Castle Air, tho at the same time to make it regular’. With its battlemented parapets, prominent chimneys and deliberately austere detailing, the house is an English castle in Classical idiom. It was the first of several medieval castles such as Lumley, Co Durham (1721–28) that he was to adapt in this way.

To different degrees, the spirit of the castle is also apparent in his new building projects at Kings Weston near Bristol, Seaton Delaval, Northumberland (1720–28), and his own Vanbrugh Castle at Greenwich (1718–19). Vanbrugh paid particular attention to the landscape settings of his houses. He perfected them with additional buildings, some of which are themselves architectural masterpieces. ‘The Country Houses of Sir John Vanbrugh’ by Jeremy Musson is published by Aurum Press.

What to look for

Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, begun in 1723, was Vanbrugh’s last grand project and was completed after his death in 1726. He produced proposals for the complete remodelling of the medieval and Tudor building already on the site. The hall, faced throughout with cut stone, is typical of Vanbrugh’s grand entrance spaces with their layered effects, tiers of arches and iconographic content

The double screens of arches to either end add to the drama of the hall, offering vistas into the stairwells beyond. The double walls echo the design of the main façade, which is articulated by pairs of columns

The balconies within the arcades are described as ‘music galleries’ in an 18th-century inventory

In the upper register of the hall arcade is a series of portraits of monarchs. Painted in grisaille to suggest sculpture the suitable furnishing for this public area they celebrate the Protestant succession of the Crown

The internal detailing of the room is austere and emphasises the majestic volume of the space

The Temple of the Four Winds, formerly the Belvedere, begun in 1725, is one of numerous buildings Vanbrugh created in the wider landscape of Castle Howard. These included walls with towers, grand gateways and the Earl of Carlisle’s mausoleum. The design of the temple is directly inspired by the designs of the Venetian architect Palladio, and illustrates Vanbrugh’s ability to handle complex form and delicate detailing where necessary.


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