Vanbrugh, John

, a gentleman eminent in the very different characters of dramatic poet and architect, was descended from a family originally of Ghent in Flanders. His grandfather, Giles Vanburg, being obliged to quit his native country on account of the persecution of the protestants by the duke of Alva, came to England, and settled as a merchant in London, in the parish of St. Stephen, Walbrooke, where he continued until his death in 1646. He left a son, Giles Vanbmgb, who settled in the city of Chester, and was, it is supposed, a sugar-baker, where he acquired an ample fortune. Blome, in his “Britannia,” calls him gentleman, and afterwards he was styled an esquire. Removing to London, he obtained the place of comptroller of the Treasury-chamber. He died in 1715. He married Elizabeth, the fifth and youngest daughter and coheir of sir Dudley Carleton, of Imber-court in Surrey, knt. She died in 1711. By her he had eight sons, the second of whom was John, the subject of the present article. The time of his birth has not been ascertained, b,ut it probably was about the middle of the reign of Charles II.

We have no account of his education, but it probably was liberal, and he seems to have made a rapid progress in the accomplishments suited to his rank in life. A gay, lively disposition led him to the army, in which at a very early age he bore an ensign’s commission, but does not appear to have remained long a candidate for higher promotion. His course of desultory reading, or the company he kept, seems to have given him a taste for the drama, which he cultivated with the greatest success, and divided with Congreve the merit of reviving the comic muse. In some of his winter-quarters he became acquainted with sir Thomas Skipwith; who being a sharer in a theatrical patent, though little concerned in the conduct of it, young Vanbrugh shewed him the outlines of two plays; and sir Thomas encouraged him to finish “The Relapse,” which, notwithstanding its gross indecencies, being acted in 1697, succeeded beyond their warmest expectations, placed Vanbrugh in a high degree of reputation, and stimulated him (under the patronage of lord Halifax) to complete his “Provok’d Wife;” which was successfully brought out at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1698. Though both these comedies met with greater applause than the author expected, yet both were liable to the severest censure, and verified the observation of Pope,

< f That Van wants grace, who never wanted wit.“| In the same year, 1693, he brought out his comedy ofÆsop,“which was acted at Drury-Lane, and contains much general satire and useful morality, but was not very successful.” The False Friend,“his next comedy, came out in 1702. He had interest enough to raise a subscription of thirty persons of quality, at 100l. each, for building a stately theatre in the Hay-Market; on the first stone that was laid of this theatre were inscribed the words Little Whig, as a compliment to a celebrated beauty, lady Sunderland, second daughter of the duke of Marlborough, the tast and pride of that party. The house being finished in 1706, it was put by Mr. Betterton and his associates under the management of sir John Vanbrugh and Mr. Congreve, in hopes of retrieving their desperate fortunes; but their expectations were too sanguine. The new theatre was opened with a translated opera, set to Italian music, called” The Triumph of Love,“which met with a cold reception.” The Confederacy“was almost immediately after produced by sir John, and acted with more success than so licentious a performance deserved, though less than it was entitled to, if considered merely with respect to its dramatic merit. The prospects of the theatre being unpromising, Mr. Congreve gave up his share and interest wholly to Vanbrugh,” who, being now become sole manager, was under a necessity of exerting himself. Accordingly, in the same season, he gave the public three other imitations from the French; viz. 1. “The Cuckold in Conceit.” 2. “Squire Treeloby;” and, 3. “The Mistake.” The spaciousness of the dome in the new theatre, by preventing the actors from being distinctly heard, was an inconvenience not to be surmounted; and an union of the two companies was projected. Sir John, tired of the business, disposed of his theatrical concerns to Mr. Owen Swinney, who governed the stage till another great revolution occurred. Our author’s last comedy, “The Journey to London,” which was left imperfect, was finished to great advantage by Mr. Cibber, who takes notice in the prologue of sir John’s virtuous intention in composing this piece, to make amends for scenes written in the fire of youth. He seemed sensible indeed of this, when in 1725 he altered an exceptionable scene in “The Provoked Wife,” by putting into the mouth of a woman of quality what before had been spoken by a clergyman; a change which removed from him the imputation of prophaneness, which, however, | as well as the most gross licentiousness, still adheres to his other plays, and gave Collier an irresistible advantage over him in the memorable controversy respecting the stage.

At what time Vanbrugh began to be an architect by profession, we do not find mentioned. His principal buildings are Blenheim Castle- Howard, in Yorkshire; Eastberry, in Dorsetshire; King’s Weston, near Bristol; Easton-Neston, in Northamptonshire; Mr. Buncombe’s, in Yorkshire; and the opera-house; to which we may indeed add his most tasteless pile, St. John’s church, in Westminster; but neither want of taste nor of grandeur of conception can be justly attributed to sir John’s greatest works, Blenheim and Castle-Howard. Walpole says, " However partial the court was to Vanbrugh, every body was not so blind to his defects. Swift ridiculed both his own diminutive house at Whitehall, and the stupendous pile at Blenheim. Of the first he says,

`At length they in the rubbish spy

A thing resembling a goose-pie.‘

And of the other,

`That, if his grace were no more skill’d in

The art of battering walls than building,

We might expect to see next year

A mouse-trap-man chief engineer.’

Thus far the satirist was well founded party-rage warped his understanding when he censured Vanbrugh’s plays, and left him no more judgment to see their beauties than sir John had when he perceived not that they were the only beauties he was formed to compose.“Walpole, perhaps, was not aware of the handsome apology Dr. Swift and Mr. Pope have made, in the joint preface to their miscellanies” In regard to two persons only we wish our raillery, though ever so tender, or resentment, though ever so just, had not been indulged. We speak of sir John Vanbrugh, who was a man of wit, and of honour; and of Mr. Addison, whose name deserves all the respect from every lover of learning.“And notwithstanding Walpole’s own contribution of wit and flippancy to depreciate the character of Vanbrugh’s Blenheim and Castle-Howard, we are far more inclined to the opinion of our illustrious artist and elegant writer, str Joshua Reynolds, delivered, as it is, with the modesty that distinguishes, however seldom it accompanies, superior genius.” In the buildings of Vanbrugh, who was a poet as well as an architect, there is a greater display of | imagination than we shall find, perhaps, in any other; and this is the ground of the effect we feel it) many of his works, notwithstanding the faults with which many of them are charged. For this purpose Vanbrugh appears to have had recourse to some principles of the Gothic architectore, which, thoueh not so ancient as the Grecian, is more so to


our imagination, with which the artist is more concerned than will; absolute truth.“”To speak of Vanbrugh,“adds sir Joshua,” in the language of 'a painter, he had originality of invention; he understood light and shadow, and had great skill in composition. To support his principal object, he produced his second and third groupes or masses. He perfectly understood in his art, what is the most difficult in ours, the conduct of the back-ground, by which the design and invention are set off to the greatest advantage. What the back-ground is in painting, in architecture is the real ground on which the building is erected; and no architect took greater care that his work should not appear crude and hard, that is, that it did not abruptly start out of the ground without expectation or preparation. This is a tribute which a painter owes to an architect who composed like a painter, and was defrauded of the due reward of his merit by the wits of his time, who did not understand the principles of composition in poetry better than he, and who knew little or nothing of what he understood perfectly, the general ruling principles of architecture and painting. Vanbrugh’s fate was that of the great Perrault. Both were the objects of the petulant sarcasms of factious men of letters, and both have left some of the fairest monuments which, to this day, decorate their several countries; the fagade of the Louvre; Blenheim, and Castle Howard."

Castle-Howard Vanbrugh built for Charles, earl of Carlisle, deputy to the earl marshal, who gave him the appointment of Clarenceux, king-at-arms, in 1704. The appointment, however, was remonstrated against by the superseded heralds, and the college at large felt the slight put upon them by having a total stranger made king-at-­arms, and who was likewise ignorant of the profession of heraldry and genealogy. Swift’s pun was, that he might now build houses He was knighted at Greenwich, September 9, 1714, appointed comptroller of the royal works January 6, 1714-5, and surveyor of the works at Greenwich hospital, August 17, 1716. It was designed to have given him the place of garter but finding that the younger | Anstis had a reversionary grant, he resigned his tabard to Knox Ward, esq. February 9, 1725-6, and died March 26 following, at Whitehall. His country residence was Vanbrugh-Fields, at Greenwich,- where he built two seats, one called the Bastile, standing on Maize, or Maze-Hill, on the east side of the park. Lady Vanbrugh, his relict, sold it to lord Trelawny, who made it his residence: the name was taken from the French prison of which it was a model. It is said, but no time is mentioned, that on a visit to France, his curiosity and natural taste exciting him to take a survey of the fortifications in that kingdom, he was taken notice of by an engineer, secured by authority, and carried to the Bustile, where his confinement was so much softened by humanity, that he amused himself by drawing rude draughts of some comedies. This circumstance raised such curiosity at Paris, that he was visited by several of the noblesse, and by their means procured his liberty before any solicitation for it came from England. He had another built in the same style at Blackheath, called the Mincepye-house, now or lately inhabited by a descendant. Lady Vanbrugh, his relict, died April 26, 1776, aged ninety, and their only son, an ensign of the second regiment of the foot-guards, died of the wounds he received in a battle fought near Tournay, in 1745. 1


Many additional particulars of sir John’s history may be found in —Cibber's Lives. Swift’s Works. Noble’s College of Arms. —Gent. Mag. vols. LXVII and LXXIV. Cole’s ms Collections in But. Mus. Reynolds’s Works, &c.