Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726)

Sir John Vanbrugh © National Portrait Gallery

Sir John Vanbrugh

Name:
Sir John Vanbrugh
Job:
Architect
Location:
Seaton Delaval Hall

Sir John Vanbrugh was, by turns, businessman, soldier, playwright,
herald and architect of some of the most important country houses of his era.

Descended from Anglo-Flemish merchants, Vanbrugh was born in London in 1664 but grew up in Chester after his family had fled a major outbreak of the plague in London in 1665.

He demonstrated an intense early identification with the Whig cause of parliamentary democracy, and from 1686 was working undercover, playing a role in bringing about the armed invasion by William of Orange, the deposition of James II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1689. Returning from bringing messages to William at The Hague, Vanbrugh was arrested at Calais on a charge of espionage in September 1688, two months before William invaded England, and was imprisoned in the Bastille. 

On his return to England, he exchanged army life for the London stage and wrote several plays, including The Provoked Wife and The Relapse, until he turned his creative energies to theatre management and architecture.

Vanbrugh is thought to have had no formal training in architecture. His inexperience was compensated for by his unerring eye for perspective and detail and his close working relationship with Nicholas Hawksmoor. Hawksmoor, a former clerk of Sir Christopher Wren, was to be Vanbrugh's collaborator in many of his most ambitious projects.

Vanbrugh's chosen style was the baroque, which had been spreading across Europe during the 17th century, promoted by, amongst others, Bernini and Le Vau. Vanbrugh instigated European baroque's metamorphosis into a subtle, almost understated version that became known as English baroque. Three of Vanbrugh's designs act as milestones for evaluating this process:

1. Castle Howard, commissioned in 1699
2. Blenheim Palace, commissioned in 1704
3. Seaton Delaval Hall, begun in 1718

Unfortunately, Vanbrugh would not live to see his Seaton Delaval Hall masterpiece finished - he died from an asthma attack in 1726, two years before the work was completed.