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The Active Eye in Architecture
Sir George Trevelyan

First published in 1977 by The Wrekin Trust
This book is out-of-print, available only on this website
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7  A Venture into Vanbrugh


Each style offers a new field for exploration. Obviously the Baroque is likely to be exciting for our purposes. The nature of Baroque is that the basic classical features are developed into an individuality that goes beyond the stern classical laws. Baroque and mannerism therefore show superb examples of metamorphosis of basic column. We shall speak of South German Baroque in the last chapter. Let us now see what happens when we look at the work of Vanbrugh, that master of English Baroque. Sir John Vanbrugh, writer of bawdy plays for Charles II court, flowered into heroic architecture with Castle Howard as his maiden venture.

'Van's genius, without thought or lecture,
Is hugely turned to architecture
.'

So wrote Swift. The transition from drama to architecture is not so surprising. He transfers his surging imagination and dramatic invention from one field to another. There is some thing Homeric about the scale of his thinking, in stone instead of words.

We will begin with that most astonishing of his somewhat smaller works – Seaton Delaval in Northumberland, now standing dark among the coastal coalfields. For the wild and romantic family of the Delavals, Vanbrugh built a country house unlike anything ever seen before. It is said that all the Delaval ladies were beautiful and vivacious and that no man of the family ever died in his bed. Vanbrugh's giant quality is fitting for such folk. Fitting also is the end of the story in that the house was gutted by fire, though restoration is now in hand. The house is so extraordinary that it is hard to grasp it. The discipline of our technique of looking helps in an analysis. I invite the reader now to explore Seaton Delaval from the drawings.

The eye is arrested by the octagon corner tower. Master its shape and feel along that remarkable rustication that runs in rounded bands about the base of the whole house (Fig. 16A). Quickly we pick up a kindred tower at the opposite corner, twin to the first. We know the building stands four square so we project thought through it to the remaining two sentinel towers invisible from where we stand. What have we here other than the essence of the Border keep, square with its corner towers. It is of course easy to make forms flow through other forms and therefore we can envisage the 'castle' as a separate structure. But we have not finished with that tower. Quickly, through the impact of its strange base, we find a kindred image, the one octagon and the other square. The great grouping of three columns is surely a metamorphosis of the tower. Look strongly on those two images, until the experience grows that the second has evolved from the first. Those three remarkable columns are somehow, we feel, contained embryonically in the corner tower. They are paired with the corresponding group across the steps, and seem to stand guard around the corner of a separate building which stands forward from the castle. Clearly it runs right through the latter on a north-south axis.

There is strange symmetry throughout Seaton Delaval, so we query whether we shall find the columns again on the garden front to the south. There they are indeed, but another transformation has taken place (Fig. 16B). Move the eye back and forth between the two groupings to sense the difference. The three have been taken and drawn out to create a porch. At the same time the pillars of the north front, somewhat earthbound by heavy horizontal rustication, have changed into fluted Corinthian columns, yet their relationship is surely clear. Then we grasp the meaning. Here is a great processional way leading through the heart of the house. Go down to the north gate and walk solemnly up towards the great approach steps between the two austere wings of the long forecourt thrown far forward to receive us, up the steps under the sun window and through to the temple platform on the other side. We have found the second feature in the complex of buildings. This is no ordinary country house. It is something much stranger.

Now lift the eye above the entablature of the frontal columns. There stand enormous plinths. We have learned to expect the metamorphosis of column into sculpture. Is this waiting for some colossal figure? Or is some angelic or godlike being standing there invisible to us? Perhaps, at least, the plinth is offered as a point of landing should he wish to come down to earth! Our eye is now taken by the quite separate building on the roof. For all the world this looks like a kind of classical temple running right across the square house so that it also dominates the ceremonial exit porch. This is unit number 3, but we have not finished. Central on either side, making now a west-east axis, stand two huge staircase towers. They are bound at the bottom by the round-banded base. Above, this changes to an original rustication of even bands and recesses. This chthonic earth-bound form climbs high up until the grim tower is crowned by a delicate chamber with a Venetian window. But now the eye leaps to the astonishing roof feature. Forget anything so mundane as chimneys. We are concerned with architectural imagination. Here is a mysterious doorway with a giant keystone, yet related to the tower by the same strange banding. To what is it giving access as it stands against the sky? Is there some further temple on the supersensible planes? Is it linked with the empty plinths?

Seaton Delaval is indeed no country house. It was never meant for prosaic daily living though it lent itself to, and doubtless encouraged, the wild excesses of the Delaval family. Vanbrugh was here allowed the opportunity to give free rein to his imagination. May he not here be touching racial memory, the collective unconscious, and those faculties which can uncover recollection of temple forms in ages long gone? Is there not some reflection of classical, Egyptian, even Atlantean structures, transmuted in the fire of creative imagination?

This suggests the scale of the man. Too lightly do we speak of 'the imagination of Vanbrugh'. He is a phenomenon, a colossal consciousness which broke through the bonds of social refinement and tapped the tremendous springs of inspiration. Master dramatist that he was, he turned from theatre to the greater drama of stone. Imagination rightly understood is that faculty of receiving in picture image the truths of the archetypal realm behind the outward appearances. It is the first step towards initiation into knowledge of higher reality. Certain great individuals develop the power. Is it possible that Vanbrugh was on this scale and that his building represents something of a break-through in consciousness? Seaton Delaval, one of his smaller houses, seems to compact into itself so much of ancient, dark and mysterious knowledge. My companion was something of a sensitive and is able to pick up the atmosphere of places. She found Seaton Delaval so oppressive in the sense of something sinister and incomprehensible that after twenty minutes she was almost overwhelmed by it. Thinking her interest was flagging, I suggested we analysed the building as a lesson in 'active looking'. This came as a rescue to her and the rationalizing of the forms and structures broke through the weight of mood. She may have been touching the mysteries which Vanbrugh was handling. It may have been a fitting end that Seaton Delaval was gutted by fire.

Now in our hunting for images we must make cross reference to Blenheim, Vanbrugh's most monumental achievement. Marlborough's triumph gave scope for his tremendous genius to flower. Here in the Palace for the Hero he achieved Homeric scale. Here again the Processional Way is obvious (Fig. 17). Study the grouping of the great porch. The coupled square columns suggest that they are huge 'wall', albeit aristocratic. Vanbrugh is always well earthed and his life was epitomized by Swift's epitaph:

'Lie heavy on him earth, for he
Laid many a heavy load on thee
.'

The great pediment above the portico is filled with heroic carving. We have already considered the high significance of this point in the building. Now look above at the astonishing form. Coupled pilasters, reflecting the square columns rise and hold the beginnings of a second pediment belonging to an obvious temple form which should be compared with its prototype at Seaton Delaval. Here however, the central section has been run far back, as if to recede into a more mysterious background. The two triangular sides are left truncated against the sky, but here again is that strange arch which appeared on Seaton Delaval's roof, reappearing in a changed form and leading through to unaccountable space.

In the great forecourt Vanbrugh gives us a lovely example of the birth of columns, an exciting exercise for the eye, but alas too complex for me to attempt in drawing. This forecourt is majestic in its scale and it needs half-a-day to get it really 'moving' in our looking and perhaps only this form of enhanced looking would hold the attention long enough to get the experience. How much we are missing if we pass through the forecourt with a cursory glance! The whole is a great dramatic symphony which can only be unravelled by patient use of the eye until all the images become alive and mobile and the great pillars speak with power. The whole house becomes a gigantic organism, a creature gazing out like some huge sphinx with outstretched arms, and in its brow in place of the frontal lobe is that strange space, that piece of negative architecture created by the sliding back of the upper temple. Our minds must be content to rest in mysteries.

Before leaving the imagination of Vanbrugh one experience at Castle Howard may be described. This was his maiden work. We are not concerned here with the question of how much Hawksmoor collaborated. We are concerned simply with the imaginations that arise out of our precise and imaginative looking. Around the steps of the forecourt are a series of huge plinths. They seemed to me again to be inviting the descent of colossal beings in form of sculpture, a hint that even the scale of the visible Castle Howard was dwarfed by a further imagination. The answer was given me most unexpectedly in studying details on the garden front. As ever, I was merely watching eye movements and accounting for all the features. There were the giant pilasters and between them the windows (Fig. 18). Beneath all was a monumental base like a vast plinth holding the whole structure of the house. Below the windows I noticed an unusual form. The wall area was cut into by a curious shape (A). The wall panel on either side of the window thus became a form as shown in (B). It also curved forward at the bottom just as the surface of a pilaster curves to give a final member above the base. This made a pretty enough shape when these two areas surrounding the window were related together. Then I suddenly saw what these features were saying and it was breathtaking. The eye most naturally took the hollow feature under the window (A). But when attention was transferred to couple together the two forms on either side of the giant pilaster, they appeared like the bottom part of an absolutely gigantic pilaster. The eye rushed up into space and along the whole façade. In imagination the row of immense pilasters rose to their full height to create a temple such as man has never seen, worthy to receive the Immortals who might deign to alight on the expectant plinths. Here was Vanbrugh the dramatist. Here is temple implied within temple, the supersensible interpenetrating the visible. It is as if he started to build the incredible façade of immense pilasters, took them up just ten feet or so to indicate their possibility and then modified to the present scale of building, ended them in the disguise of Wall areas flanking the windows and overlaid them with a 'giant' pilaster modest indeed in comparison. Is this thinking valid? It arose not from speculative interpretation, but from highly accurate comparative looking (exact sensorial imagination). To me it gave an experience of profound awe and excitement and enhanced my view of the greatness of Vanbrugh as dramatist in stone. It is for each of us to explore in our own way, but it must begin with the consciously activated looking, and the speculation and interpretation must be allowed to arise of itself and not be forced. It follows naturally since there is Necessity behind the growth of form.


Next chapter: 8. The Ubiquitous Pillar

This way! Click me and I'll take you to the next page!
The Active Eye in Architecture
Sir George Trevelyan

First published in 1977 by The Wrekin Trust
This book is out-of-print, available only on this website
Next page
Previous page


Start of the book
Download a zipfile
HOME
Articles   Books
Brief biographies
Close encounters
Photos

© Copyright Sir George Trevelyan and estate, 1977. This book may be downloaded and printed on paper in single copies for personal use and study only, in a spirit of fair play and without financial transaction. .