SIR JOHN VANBRUGH: A Biography by Kerry Downes


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A flimsy biographical structure teetering on a solid foundation of architectural history; by the author of studies of Wren, Hawksmoor, and Rubens. Best known as the designer of such monuments as Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, the English jack-of-all-trades Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) led a life that spanned five reigns and almost as many professions (soldier, architect, playwright, and Royal Herald--all careers for which he had no training but considerable connections, talent, and luck). Downes, irritatingly and unnecessarily careful to set down every detail known about the Vanbrugh circle and its times, has uncovered nothing new about Vanbrugh's own poorly documented life. The book only speculates as to what led Vanbrugh first to try soldiering (which landed him in a French prison on a charge of espionage), then playwriting (his Restoration comedies, The Relapse, 1696, and The Provok'd Wife, 1697, are still staged), and, finally, designing buildings. Downes, an art historian, attempts to examine each of Vanbrugh's achievements with an equally thorough eye, but his literary criticism is more adulation than revelation, and his historical research frustrates the reader with its overabundance of irrelevant detail and lack of new insight into its subject's life. He builds a stronger framework for an appreciation of Vanbrugh's architecture, closely examining the structures that earned the architect a reputation for dramatic flair and eclectic grandeur; he also discusses the fruitful collaboration between Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor, whose technical expertise allowed the untrained Vanbrugh to set down his ideas first on paper and then in stone. A useful guide to Vanbrugh's architecture undermined by pretentions to being a ""definitive biography"" and by its author's blind fondness for his subject.

Pub Date: May 17th, 1988
Publisher: St. Martin's