Thursday, October 10, 2013
More than five and a half years ago (sometimes I find it hard to believe I have been blogging for so long) I wrote a post about this building in Oxford, and accompanied my thoughts with a rather lacklustre photograph, the best I could muster at the time. Aware that my photograph did not do the building justice, every time I've been in central Oxford since then I've had a look to see if the facade could be viewed with sunlight on its stone and without cars parked in front. As you can see, I have almost managed it – just the rear end of one car prevented me from getting the whole facade in the frame, and even with this intrusion, the result seemed closer to the mark.
So here it is: Vanbrugh House, a building of the early-18th century by an unknown designer that has more than a hint of the eponymous architect (or his brilliant assistant Hawksmoor) about it: those very plain window surrounds, with just the keystones emphasized on the upper floors and aprons in the middle floor; the exaggerated cornice and canopy; the pair of giant pilasters rising all the way up the building; the narrow space between the pilasters; the very plain doorway. The pilasters are especially odd: they seem to have been parked in front of the rest of the frontage, filling the gaps between the evenly spaced windows like an abandoned piece of stage scenery. The decoration towards the tops of the pilasters, beneath the protruding canopy, is also rather like scenery – a couple of those three-banded triglyphs to provide the idea of an entablature, but not the thing itself.
Like all scenery, it needs good lights. On a dark day, it can look brooding and oppressive. But with some sunshine it comes to life – although there's no getting away from the sheer weight of all that stone. Whoever designed it, he deserves Abel Evans's epitaph for Vanbrugh himself: 'Lie heavy on him, Earth! For he Laid many heavy loads on thee!'