The Great Court, Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire
Architects: John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawkesmoor (1705-1724)
Engraving: from 'Vitruvius Britannicus', Colen Campbell (1715)
Source: RIBA British Architectural Library Drawings & Archives Collection
Blenheim is both a house and a national monument. A gift from a grateful nation to John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, it commemorates his defeat of King Louis XIV at the battle of Blenheim in 1704, thwarting French plans to dominate Europe.
The house was designed by the amateur architect John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), with the help of the professional architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736). It is impossible to establish the division of ideas between them, and here, between 1705 and 1724, the partnership produced their masterpiece. Blenheim’s sources are French, English and Italian and the result, though unique, is undoubtedly Baroque. An intensely romantic building, this is a Gothic fortress clothed in simple and masculine Classical details, all used in highly unorthodox forms. Blenheim is both a castle and a palace.
This early engraving by the architect Colen Campbell flattens the great depth of Blenheim’s court. Lost is the drama produced by the courts varied shapes and deep shadows. Nevertheless, we can still get an idea of the originality of Vanbrugh’s and Hawksmoor’s vision. The fantastic roofscape, for example, has balustrades, pediments and statues, like many other Baroque houses. However, it also has pinnacles made of piled-up cannon balls surmounted by reversed fleurs-de-lys and ducal coronets. All around stone military trophies proclaim victory: Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor were determined that the great victory would not be forgotten.