Sir John Vanbrugh is a classic example of the Renaissance Man (even if he was a bit late to be truly from those times.) There aren’t too many people who can have claimed to have written some of the rudest, funniest and most influential plays of their day, become Surveyor to Greenwich Hospital with vitually no experience and been the architect of several of the largest and most opulent palaces in Britain. Hardly surprising, then, that when he came to building his own dwelling, he wasn’t going to settle for any old boring house.
He didn’t start out very well. The son of a linen merchant in Chester, he decided that the best way to see the world was to join the army. Trouble was, he had a bit of an unusual surname and he managed to get arrested in France because they thought he was Dutch. Since he didn’t have any papers on him, they decided to throw him in jail. Rather optimistically, they had assumed that he was really important and put him up for ransom in exchange for some high-end French prisoners. Sadly for Vanbrugh, no one gave a stuff and he ended up there for five years before the French gave up.
By this point he was nearly 30, so he had a bit of catching up to do. He claims to have written The Relapse, or Virtue in Danger in six weeks. Whether he did or not, it was an instant hit, and he was suddenly the toast of seamy, seedy, fashionable London. A natural bon viveur, he was extremely popular with his public (The Provok’d Wife came hot on the heels of his first hit) but not so popular with the other bon viveurs of the day, upon whose square-capped satin shoes Vanbrugh was joyfully treading. He built himself a very curious house in Whitehall, which Jonathan Swift reckoned looked like a Goose Pie (whatever one of those looks like,) everyone laughed heartily and it was known as Goose Pie House ever after.
I have no idea how John Vanbrugh persuaded Lord Carlisle to ditch the highly experienced architect he had asked to build what was to be Castle Howard and hire the experience-free Vanbrugh instead, but that man must have had some gift of the gab. This guy had never built anything bigger than his extremely odd house and had no skill at all as a draughtsman. I mean – the man couldn’t even draw. He built a little wooden model to show Carlisle what he had in mind. Presumably he got some tips from his mate, Sir Christopher Wren. Mr Swift was even more scathing. But Castle Howard, with all its turrets and ramparts and crenellations went up and got Vanbrugh another commission.
Blenheim Palace was next. But he started doing all sorts of things not in the original model (actually, he started adapting the old castle in its grounds as, ahem, a bijou residence for himselfand ended up with a very angry duchess, so he wrote some notes about the aesthetics of architecture to placate her and inadvertently created a seminal treatise that is still valued today. But the duchess wasn’t impressed, and Woodstock Castle was demolished.
Vanbrugh’s fascination with the theatrical pervaded everything he did. Virtually everything he built looked like a stage set. He was renting a place in Greenwich that he hated (John Evelyn visited and even he had to admit it was “wretched.”) But he did like the view – and let’s face it, the view from the little mini roundabout outside Vanbrugh Castle is still one of the great sights of Greenwich (if a little changed from Vanbrugh’s day.)
Because his job was now there (he was surveyor to Greenwich Hospital though frankly didn’t do an awful lot) he decided to set up his new roots and Maze Hill, handily next to the park, was as good as any. Vanbrugh Castle was his usual concoction of towers and crenellations, gatehouses, ramparts, arch-y windows etc, in brick rather than stone,and he made sure that he kept his view by making the lead roof accessible – possibly Greenwich’s first roof garden. It all looked very medieval and has been claimed to be influential in the beginning of the Gothic revival in the 19th Century.
I am glad that Vanbrugh Castle itself remains to this day (if vastly altered on the interior, presumably) but that makes me even sadder about what is not left. Vanbrugh built a row of about 5 follies in his back garden, placed prettily down the hill to a ‘fortified’ gatehouse at the road. It must have looked fantastic. It was meant to impress visitors who would travel past each of them as they wound up their own private road just to the east of Maze Hill. Romantic names like “The Nunnery” and “Mince Pie House” (clearly Vanbrugh had a bit of a thing for pies, and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) and “The White Towers” conjure images that can only be imagined today as I am pretty convinced none of them exist any more (please tell me I’m wrong and someone has one of these in their back garden…)
The Castle, at least, survives, albeit divided into apartments. I cannot comment on the interior as I have never seen it. Maybe you can fill me in? The yellow stock bricks have darkened with age, but that imposing frontage is still with us. Thank heavens.