April 26: Heavy, Man

2016/04/26 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1726 John Vanbrugh died.

Multi-talented designer, controversial playwright, political activist, exquisite wigwearer and general Baron Von Bombast, Vanbrugh (b. 1664) is best known in architectural circles for a series of humongous, overwhelming, hefty palaces (including Castle Howard, ca. 1700, above; Blenheim, 1705; Kings Weston House, 1710; Seaton Delaval Hall, 1720) that are the epitome of English Baroque.  Like his contemporary sometimes-collaborator Nicholas Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh delighted in designing clearly articulated classical elements–then encumbering them with bushels of ornament and stringing dozens of them together to lumber across their sites.  Vanbrugh would have answered Mies’ dictum “less is more” with either (1) a look of incredulity, (2) a glove-slap, (3) staggering swoon, or (4) nos. 1-3 in sequence.  Vanbrugh believed in Moreness of Everything: rustic bases and beefy balusters, arches pricked by gargantuan keystones, parapets (hung with all manner of swags, cupids, and mouldings-a-plenty) supporting figural sculpture, urns, pots and casseroles; multiple pediments and projections of every kind weighted with more doodads and gimcrack; domes–of course, domes!–topped by lanterns and geegaws.  Vanbrugh believed in only three Orders: Corinthian, Composite, and Caboodlecluster.  This exterior complexity reflected the elaborate entanglement of halls, chambers, antechambers, vestibules, galleries, alcoves, conservatories, libraries and parlours that made up labyrinth plans that put Minos to shame.

Vanbrugh’s behemoths inspired the excellent Alexander Pope to write (probably of Blenheim):

See, sir, here’s the grand approach;
This way is for this Grace’s coach:
There lies the bridge and here’s the clock,
Observe the lion and the cock,
The spacious court, the colonnade,
And mark how wide the hall is made!
The chimneys are so well designed,
They never smoke in any wind.
This gallery’s contrived for walking,
The windows to retire and talk in;
The council chamber for debate,
And all the rest are rooms of state.
Thanks, sir, cried I, ’tis very fine,
But where d’ye sleep or where d’ye dine?
I find, by all you have been telling,
That ’tis a house but not a dwelling.

Current repulsion for McMansions, while completely well-placed, is nothing compared to the horror aroused by these Kraken of Oxfordshire.  Maybe it is the houses themselves, or additionally Vanbrugh’s status as a writer too, that contributed to the amount of clever writing directed toward the architecture and Vanbrugh himself, for whom the following epitaph was written (either by Pope or a Dr. Abel Evans).  As an epitaph, we will let it be the final word:

Lie Heavy on him Earth for he,
Laid many a heavy load on thee.

Image: Castle Howard, ca. 1700 (from this source)

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