Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Maze Hill, London


For my next trick…

The versatile Vanbrugh. Son of a tradesman and grandson of a refugee Flemish merchant, John Vanbrugh began his career as a soldier, won a commission in Lord Huntingdon’s regiment, and was imprisoned in the Bastille as a spy. Back home in London, he cut a flamboyant figure in society and became a playwright, popular for his Restoration comedies of the 1690s (The Relapse, The Provok’d Wife). Then in the early years of the 18th century he began to practise an architect, starting (starting!) with Castle Howard, the enormous house of the Earl of Carlisle, and continuing with equally grand so-called baroque piles such as Blenheim Palace and Seaton Delaval.

When the time came to build his own house, what did Vanbrugh produce? Another baroque mansion? Not quite. Thirty years before people like Horace Walpole began to put up medieval revival buildings, Vanbrugh designed himself a castle – albeit a rather un-medieval one, built of brick and with modern luxury within. Amazingly, it has survived, on top of Maze Hill in Greenwich, southeast London. The original building is to the left, a tall structure with central stair tower and square flanking towers. There are tall narrow windows too, not quite narrow enough to look like genuine medieval arrow-slits, but near enough to give one the idea.

When the architect married, he extended the house adding a wing to the right – the current right-hand wing is partly this extension, partly a further, post-Vanbrugh addition. The result of Vanbrugh’s extension (still in brick, still vaguely castle-like) was an asymmetrical building, something very unusual for a grand house of the early-18th century and seeming to anticipate the Picturesque movement that got going much later, in the 1780s. That’s just one more surprise from a man whose life that was never entirely predictable, who was never afraid to shock. People probably laughed, but the laugh was on them.

10 comments:

Chris Partridge said...

I went round one of the houses in Vanbrugh Castle once. Surprisingly small rooms, but fabulous views over London from the roof as you can imagine.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Chris: That must have been interesting. Pevsner says something along the lines of 'small rooms and narrow corridors', which surprised me when I read it. Of course the views even from the neighbouring park are good, from the top of Vanbrugh Castle they must be spectacular.

Anonymous said...

I went to school at Vanbrugh Castle from 1958 to 1964. It was run by the RAF Benevolent Fund and was for the sons of deceased airmen. It is a magnificent building and the view from the park is, I think, one of the best in London. Small rooms and narrow corridors is about right, although some of these rooms were used as dormitories with up to eight beds. Holds many memories. MLC.

Philip Wilkinson said...

MLC: Thank you for your comment. A remarkable place to go to school.

Colin Cummings said...

I lived in Vanbrugh Castle from 1968 to 72. There were 4 Dormitories in the main castle sleeping for about 40 boys. All were named after Air Marshalls, Salmon, Tedder, Trenchard and Portal. Two people could only just pass each other in the long thin corridors. There was an air raid shelter at the back and alledgedly a tunnel that ran into what we called the Sunken Garden. Douglas Bader gave out the prizes on speech day in 1971. Colin Cummings

Philip Wilkinson said...

Colin: That's fascinating: thank you for your comment.

charlie downes said...

I too went to Vanbrugh Castle School with my brother after our Father sadly died. I went down the tunnel from the dell/woods and it lead to the underground air raid shelter that was beneath the then playground. I returned at the time when the shelter was being filled. The school supplied some boys to the Royal Naval College choir and we got to sing for Prince Charles and had the privilege of eating in the Painted Hall. The film, What a Girl Wants has many scenes from there. We also had a band that got to perform at the American Embassy as well as Biggin Hill. There were 62 boys in my last year there all of whom had lost their Fathers. Colin Cummings (previous contributor) was one of the older boys when my brother and I arrived there.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Charlie: Many thanks for sharing these memories.

Anonymous said...

I was secretary to John Childs FRICS, the chartered surveyor who acted on behalf of the buyers and I, with my notebook and pencil, accompanied him around the school whilst he conducted a full structural survey. The Headmaster's oak-paneled study, dormitories and urinals. It took me a long time to type up the report on parchment paper and a very good purchase price was negotiated at the end of it. Oh how the building has changed.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anon: Thanks so much much for adding to the memories of this building. Little did I know when I did the post way back that it would lead to such reminiscences.