Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Heavy Loads

You don't hear much these days about Frank Gehry trying to get his own play produced on Broadway, or about David Mamet designing a retirement villa for the George W. Bushes. In 18th century England, however, creative men weren't as constrained by the expectations of specialization as they seem to be today.

Sir John Vanbrugh, architect and playwright, was born on this day in 1664 in London.

Vanbrugh wrote his hit play The Relapse (1697) in a matter of a few weeks after watching Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift and wondering what would happen if one picked up the action where Cibber left off.

Vanbrugh later delved into architecture, co-designing (with Nicholas Hawksmoor) Blenheim Palace for the Duke of Marlborough -- subsequently the site of the birth of Marlborough's descendant, Winston Churchill. The first time I visited the grounds of Blenheim Palace I was 13, and subsequently, it was a mere cycle ride away from my one-time home at Crick Road, Oxford, in the tranquil Oxfordshire countryside. One's instant impression of Blenheim is of its massiveness -- like a filigreed anvil dropped unceremoniously onto a baby's blanket -- although after contemporary jeers, Blenheim Palace has come to be known as a textbook example of the English baroque style. Vanburgh also designed a number of other thick, massive structures, including Castle Howard in Yorkshire (known to many as "Brideshead" in the TV series) and Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland.

Abel Evans wrote a mock epitaph on Vanbrugh which went, “Lie heavy on him, earth, for he/ Laid many heavy loads on thee.”

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