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Rewriting history

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Sir John Vanbrugh and Landscape Architecture in Baroque England 1690-1730 Edited by Christopher Ridgway and Robert Williams. Sutton Publishing in association with the National Trust, 2000. 256pp. £25 Much of the pleasure of history lies in its surprises, leading to new connections and interesting rearrangements of the furniture. This book of 11 essays, following a conference last year held to celebrate the tercentenary of Castle Howard, is focussed upon Vanbrugh but, in taking an interdisciplinary approach, the editors allow for contradictory opinions as well as important new material.

A key essay in the book is one of the most exciting breakthroughs in architectural history for a long while. Following a hunch, Robert Williams discovered in the space of a single morning among the India Office papers at the British Library the explanation for Vanbrugh's 'missing years', 1683 to 1685.

Meticulously recorded, there lay the evidence that the young Vanbrugh had spent 15 months in the service of the East India Company at Surat. This experience informed Vanbrugh's later ideas about burial grounds and the design of mausolea, but the ripples probably spread far wider.

Other essays are closer to home. Tom Williamson's 'Estate Management and Landscape Design' emphasises the crucial importance of the economic wellbeing of the great estate, taking the glorious avenues and plantations of the seventeenth-century grandees, Castle Howard or the Earl of Essex's park at Cassiobury, as exemplars of efficient husbandry, a future cash crop. Timber was a commodity, remaining an expensive import and central to the naval defence of the country at a time of continual overseas wars. Its importance as an investment was second to none. Utility and beauty went together.

Was the fortified garden also an allusion to these belligerent years? Robert Williams assembles the evidence, the convincing bastions which surrounded houses such as Seaton Delaval, Grimsthorpe and Claremont, and seeks an explanation.Whether built to help an old soldier remember his days of glory or as a more practical device against the insurgent Irish or Jacobite, the martial outlines in the grass are an intriguing conundrum.

Less mysterious, but equally open to different interpretation, are the fortified walls (almost three quarters of a mile) at Castle Howard. Giles Worsley points out the contemporary interest in reconstructions of famous Roman sites, including Pliny's Tusculum villa, and the sheer visibility of the Roman occupation in northern England. The walled cities, York and Vanbrugh's home town Chester among them, and Roman roads were continuous reminders of a link to Classical antiquity.

Timothy Mowl offers another source: Henderskelfe Castle still stood nearby and England was in a triumphalist mood in the early 1700s. The fortified wall, he suggests, both nods back to the medieval and, somewhat theatrically, celebrates the present.

In his essay, Worsley re-examines the links between Wi l l iam Kent and Vanbrugh , conv inc ing ly challenging the artificially crisp art historical demarcation between the architects of the English Baroque and those of English Palladianism which saw Kent lodged, cuckoo-fashion, in prim Burlington's nest.

Christopher Ridgway's 'Rethinking the Picturesque' begins with the famous dispute between the Duchess of Marlborough and Vanbrugh which raged over the ruined Woodstock Manor (his argument is printed as an appendix to the essay). Like Narcissus and Echo they argued inconclusively across the acres of Blenheim park.

The altercation was the opening shot in the picturesque controversy and Ridgway elegantly extends from there to build up a picture of the mental geography of the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century traveller, seeking impact and immediacy, as well as the added poignancy of the history or memory of the building or site.Vanbrugh was an architect not content to take his information from the printed page and sped around the country in his two-wheeled calash, storing up for himself a rich diet of architectural mental images - at most of which we can only guess.

Ridgway gives Hazlitt the last word. Although writing of Vanbrugh the dramatist, he immediately took the measure of his mind: 'The train of his associations. . . lies in following the suggestions of his fancy into every possible connexion of cause and effect.' Cause and effect is the unifying thread in this most thoughtful, and thought-provoking, book.

Gillian Darley's John Soane, an Accidental Romantic (Yale University Press) has just appeared in paperback

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