A Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace story

Would you like to be a physician? An accountant? Perhaps an astronaut? Switching jobs was considerably easy in the 17th century, especially if you were a member of the right club.

Today, a person who would like to become an architect would need to complete six years of study and two years of work experience, and even then, the most exciting design in this architect’s early career would be a three bedroom detached house. For Sir John Vanbrugh, things were a bit easier.

Without any studying, practice, or work experience, he got to design Castle Howard, and immediately after that, Blenheim Palace. It seems that things went really smooth for him, right? Well, they say that he had some time to view and learn about French architecture while he was imprisoned in France, in several different places, including the notorious Bastille…

He was born in London in 1664 and his family moved north to Chester after the “Great fire” of 1666. His father was a merchant but he was more interested in politics. As a firm supporter of the Whigs (One of the two main political parties in England at that time), he took part in the preparations for the glorious revolution of 1688. Two months before the invasion, he was caught by the French carrying messages between the future William III and his supporters in England. This was enough to send him to prison for four and a half years. He served his imprisonment in a few places in France including the Bastille. In prison, according to some historians, he wrote his first play before being released in a prisoner exchange.

Back in England, Vanbrugh had great success with two of his plays, “The Relapse” and “The Provoked wife” where he praised the need for equality between the sexes during marriage. Being a Whig, Vanbrugh found himself associating with many of the political figures of the day, and was a member of their social club, the famous Kit Kat. It was at this place he met the third Earl of Carlisle. According to the stories the Earl was engaged in a conversation about his desire to build a new stately home, and Vanbrugh just joined the conversation and said that he would love to do the work. The Earl asked him about previous experience, and Vanbrugh admitted that he had none but that he had some great ideas, and that was enough…

Jonathan Swift, the man who wrote the famous “Gulliver’s Travels”, wrote this in the following verse:

Van’s genius, without thought or lecture,

Is hugely turn’d to architecture.

To be fair, Vanbrugh knew he could not do the work by himself and he began to work with Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was an experienced architect who had worked with the famous Christopher Wren, designer of St Paul Cathedral (amongst many other buildings).

I am sure that John Vanbrugh put all he had into the building of Castle Howard implementing all of his “great ideas”. It turned the house into a Baroque masterpiece, but apparently, he still had time to do some marketing, because five years after the building began, he secured another commission from a  fellow Whig member of the Kit Kat club. This time the client was John Churchill, the new Duke of Marlborough, and the commission was to build the largest non-royal house in the country – Blenheim Palace.

Things didn’t work so smoothly, which makes me feel that you do need some formal understanding of architecture before you head out to plan these grand estates. Vanbrugh never managed to see any of these great buildings completed. In the case of Castle Howard, after 26 years and £11M (in today’s currency) only half of the house was finished, and in the case of Blenheim? Well, Vanbrugh’s problem was named Sarah Churchill, the dominant wife of the Duke. After numerous disagreements, Vanburgh resigned before the palace was finished. In 1716 when it was completed the Marlboroughs opened the gates to the public. On display was their new “war memorial”. The entire country was invited except one man whom the duchess refused to allow entry,

Can you guess who it was?

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