Our book today is Kerry Downes’ big, thorough 1987 biography of that hustling, bustling Restoration polymath, John Vanbrugh.
Vanbrugh was one of those masterful thinkers they don’t seem to make anymore – a relic from a time before specialization was expected of every intellect. He was a soldier, a diplomat, a wine merchant, a book dealer, and two more things, the two that most deeply mark his life and legacy: he was a playwright, and he was an architect. The typical easy English major dichotomies – “so-and-so-wrote works of art that will outlast the greatest monuments of his age” – fall to pieces when dealing with somebody like Vanbrugh, since in addition to his works of art, he also built some of the greatest monuments of his age, and they’re with us still. It’s as if Hawksmoor had taken time out to write the sonnets of Shakespeare, or Christopher Wren had put aside his architectural notebooks just long enough to dash off Handel’s Water Music.
The plays – The Confederacy, The Relapse, The Provok’d Wife and many others – stand at the pinnacle of Restoration stagecraft for their wit, their intricacy, and their sheer animal force (Vanbrugh counted both Dryden and Pepys among his fans, although not at the same time). And the monuments – Seaton Delaval, Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace – are as gorgeous as they are inexorable in sweep and odd delicacy of design. The man himself lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in English history – the Dutch wars, the Plague, the Great Fire, the sudden-feeling shift from old-style monarchy to a land ruled by Parliament – and he lept into its currents with more energy than later ages would find it convenient to summon.
It’s amazing to me that figures like Jack Vanbrugh aren’t revisited frequently by biographers. The material is so enviably rich and voluminous, whereas the would-be writer on Shakespeare or Jane Austen has just the same old small stack of index cards with which to conjure. And yet: Wren has had only two full-dress popular biographies in English in the last century, and Hawksmoor and poor Vanbrugh have had only one apiece – and they were both written by the same guy, Kerry Downes. Not that I’m characterizing this as a misfortune for Vanbrugh: Downes is an incredibly thorough and thoroughly entertaining biographer, and his enormous book , Sir John Vanbrugh, would likely stand unchallenged as the definitive work on its subject even if it had any challengers. Downes is unabashedly old-fashioned in his approach: he likes his subject. “Some critics have found something particularly unfortunate or even unbecoming in Vanbrugh’s blank verse,” he tells us at one point, “but in literature as in architecture his is the kind of genius which no aesthetic theory dependant on a rigid system of categories will accommodate with fairness.” I’d hope a biographer of mine would strike just that kind of note!
And as noted, in addition to sympathy, Downes has one further strength for his thankless job: he’s a heck of a story-teller. A life like Vanbrugh’s makes that somewhat easy (anecdotes like the time he and Congreve and Lord Halifax dropped their britches on a particularly hot day and ‘sopped their arses’ in the fountain at Hampton Court are not hard to come by), but much still depends on the writer’s verve, seen, for instance, here in Downes’ description of the harrowing ‘Great Storm’ that swept through the south of England on 26 and 27 November of 1703:
A great wind came from the south-west, accompanied by thunderstorms. Orchards were destroyed, many thousands of oak trees were felled in the New Forest and the Forest of Dean, their roots often raising huge mounds of earth as they were wrenched out of the ground. Many of the surviving trees in agricultural areas were festooned with the remains of haystacks caught up in the whirlwind. Church spires were blown down, and in the City pinnacles were taken off some of the new churches and the roof works of the still unfinished St Paul’s were damaged. Houses lost their roofs or were even blown down, and the sheet-lead roofs of churches were rolled up by the gale. Falls of soot were everywhere, and at Wells the Bishop and his wife were killed as they lay in bed when a chimney stack collapsed on them. In the Channel many ships were sunk or damaged and sailors drowned. London was filled with rubbish of all kinds, while the center of Bristol was clogged with wrecked ships raised from the port basin by the combined forces of high wind and high tide. Congreve wrote to a friend that at Whitehall some of the big sash-windows, only recently installed in the Banqueting House, were sucked out and blown away.
Downes’ book is full of line-drawings of Vanbrugh’s various surviving blueprints and sketches, and it’s generously supplied with photos of his surviving architectural masterpieces (which yet have their own second life in film, Blenheim most recently starring in Kenneth Branagh’s wretched “Hamlet” and Castle Howard, of course, doing magnificent stand-in duty for Brideshead in “Brideshead Revisited”) – and best of all, Downes himself is there at every crucial juncture, always with a spirited opinion or an inspired interpretation (his reconstruction of the years Vanbrugh spent captive in France – including a stint in the Bastille – are particularly strong). So all in all, if a great figure in history is going to be ignored by the panty-waist popularity-hound ‘lite’ biographers of today, Vanbrugh is at least lucky he got such a marvelous volume before his fame went silent.