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Castle Howard is the grandest private house in Yorkshire

Posted in Architecture, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History on Monday, 28 October 2013

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This edited article about architecture originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 442 published on 4 July 1970.

Castle Howard, picture, image, illustration

Castle Howard

John Vanbrugh stared in amazement at the man who stood before him. Vanbrugh had very definite ideas about architecture, but had never in his life designed a house. Yet his companion, Charles Howard, had asked him to build a house for him in Yorkshire fit for a great nobleman – a house to be called Castle Howard.

Vanbrugh’s career had been one of surprises. Beginning as a military one, it had changed completely when he began to write highly successful comedy plays. His success as a play-wright and his reputation as a wit, led to an invitation for him to join an exclusive haunt of the Whig nobility, known as the Kit-Cat Club. It was here that he came to the notice of young Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle. Howard at 30 was acting Earl Marshal of England – as his cousin, the Duke of Norfolk, was too young to fill the position at that time.

Howard and Vanbrugh had had many discussions on architecture, and on the proposed Castle Howard which William Talman was designing for the earl. When Howard and Talman fell out over Talman’s payment, Vanbrugh was given his chance. Never a man to refuse a challenge, he set about drawing up plans.

Vanbrugh enlisted the services of Nicholas Hawksmoor in his great task and agreed to pay him £40 a year and £50 for each journey to the site, as it was a long journey from London in those days. Hawksmoor was a considerable architect in his own right who had all the practical knowledge which Vanbrugh lacked. He had been Sir Christopher Wren’s clerk at 18 and his assistant in many undertakings, and in 1698 was Clerk of Works at Greenwich Hospital. This was one of the first buildings in England to have featured in its design a great dome, and Castle Howard became the first private house in the country to be built with one.

Many scholars have said that Hawksmoor and not Vanbrugh was the real architect of Castle Howard and their later joint venture of Blenheim Palace, dismissing Vanbrugh as an amateur. But then many famous architects of the time were also amateurs, including Inigo Jones.

Perhaps it is fairer to say that Vanbrugh could not have managed without Hawksmoor’s knowledge and experience. The partnership was obviously a satisfactory one as it lasted for more than 25 years.

In 1699, preliminary drawings were made and by the end of that year they had taken shape sufficiently for a wooden model of the proposed house to be shown to King William III who showed great interest in this venture. Workmen were engaged and building was begun in 1700.

The house proved an innovation in many ways, one of the chief of these being its position high on a hill in Yorkshire on a north and south line and commanding magnificent views, instead of the traditional east and west plan which gives more shelter. Vanbrugh replied to criticism of the siting by saying that all the rooms at Castle Howard were very warm and that all the State rooms faced south in any case.

Another unusual feature was that the north and south fronts were in different architectural styles: the north front being much more austere than the south. This, too, was criticised, but, as Hawksmoor confidently pointed out, it was not possible to see both fronts at the same time!

By 1714, the Earl was in residence, but sadly none of the three men concerned with the building of the castle ever saw the completion of their grand plan. Vanbrugh died in 1726 with work on the west wing not started. Hawksmoor lived for another 10 years working on the mausoleum (family tomb) in the castle grounds. This was so impressive that Horace Walpole described it as “a mausoleum that would tempt one to be buried alive.” The death of the Earl himself in 1738 brought all building work to a temporary halt. As an old man, he recorded that he had spent £78,000 on his home, and still it was incomplete.

During the last years of his life, the Earl was bombarded with “advice” on the building of the mausoleum by his son-in-law, “Long Sir Tom” Robinson, who actually completed Hawksmoor’s work after his death. “Long Sir Tom” had a great opinion of himself as an architect, having already built himself a house, and his hands were fairly itching to get hold of the castle. His chance came after the Earl’s death when he managed to persuade the 4th Earl to let him carry on with the building. His taste differed from that of Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, and so the west wing built by him is much wider and more imposing than their east wing.

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