In the Gentleman's Magazine for 1815, the antiquary John Carter described Sir John Vanbrugh's houses on Greenwich Hill, of which Vanbrugh Castle is now the only survivor. When Carter wrote, they were, nearly a century old, all had been altered and their family connections were fading. The sequence of his matter-of-fact descriptions is not immediately clear, but they appear to be the only ones written while Vanbrugh's scheme could still be seen as a whole. Vanbrugh has always been linked with extravagantly large buildings, but, for his own habitation, he preferred something small, if unconventional. It may be accidental that the many small-house designs among the drawings at Elton Hall appear to date from the period of the Blackheath estate. From some of these, from later views, rate-books, family wills and his unpublished account book, we can learn much of the early history and appearance of the first picturesque landscaped estate.
In August, 1716, at the age of 52, Vanbrugh succeeded Wren as Surveyor to Greenwich Hospital; the appointment was of limited architectural importance, but undoubtedly it helped to turn his steps towards a district which was on the main Dover Road, gave spectacular views from Greenwich Hill, and was beginning to be fashionable. His first move, as his account book shows, was to lease
Sir William Saunderson's house in March, 1717. Twelve months later he bought, from Sir Michael Biddulph, leases of a plot on Maze Hill and a 12-acre triangular field south of it. On the plot he built what he called his Castle; in the field, which became known as Vanbrugh's Field, he built a gateway and four houses for members of his family. These were demolished early in the present century, and only the track survives in the modern street called Vanbrugh Fields.
Coming up from Greenwich, one reached first the walls, bastions and crenellated gateway of the castle (Fig 1), but most travellers would approach from the main road, through a larger, battlemented gateway, consisting of two habitable towers, joined by an arch at the southern corner of the field. Through the gateway the track passed three houses on the right, and led towards the front of Vanbrugh House, later Mince-Pie House, which stood in the north-east corner of the field. From there the path swung to the left (west) and came out at the north-west corner opposite the Castle gateway. Vanbrugh Castle was the first, and, ultimately, the largest of the houses, surrounded by towers and outbuildings and mock fortifications, which owed less to Vanbrugh's memories of his incarceration in the Bastille than to the walls of Chester, his boyhood home, and the scenery of stage histories. Moreover, the Castle, like the whole estate, mixes symmetry and its opposite in a manner which foreshadows the freer and larger imitation castles of the early Gothic Revival.
Vanbrugh paid rates on the Castle site from 1719, and moved in early in 1720. A plan at Elton confirms that it was originally triangular and symmetrical, with a circular staircase tower on the south, flanked by square corner towers (Fig 2), and a vertical stack of half-round bow windows on the northern apex facing the Thames (Fig 3). But already the outbuildings were asymmetrical, and this aspect is emphasised in William Stukeley's sketch of 1721 (Fig 4). He drew the buildings from the field and somewhat from the right, so that the outbuilding, which still exists on the right of the courtyard next to the street, partly obscures the main building.
Perspective was not Stukeley's strong point, but from Carter's account we understand that the round tower with a port-hole window, which Stukeley shows between the outbuilding and the stair-tower of the house, was a separate structure, a well-head tower in the courtyard. This feature disappeared soon after 1815 (though the well survived much longer), and several other structures were demolished before J. C. Buckler made his drawing in 1823 (Fig 1). Comparison shows that the building in the foreground of the latter had been reduced from two storeys to one since Carter's visit.
But while demolitions continued into the present century, including the gateway, Vanbrugh Castle has undergone enlargements for almost the same length of time; most of the east side of the courtyard was re-modelled, in 1907, for Alexander Duckham, the last private resident of the house. (He later gave it to the RAF Benevolent Fund School, which is now moving out). The first addition, however, must have been Vanbrugh's own, since in both plan and details it is identical in style with the original building: this is the block on the east (Fig 4), which appears in. a print by W. H. Toms entitled "The D: of Richmond's House near Blackheath" (BM ms Add. 32364, f. 166). The Second Duke of Richmond, who succeeded in 1723, then lived lower down Maze Hill. Vanbrugh's niece, Philippa, was, for a time, the Duchess's companion, and the Duke may have rented the Castle from the architect's widow fairly soon after his death, in 1726. Richmond left in 1743, which gives a terminal date for the Toms view.
Toms's print also established that the large bow-ended room on the north west was built out later, presumably to give a better view when growing trees had screened Vanbrugh's original bow windows. More surprisingly, the print indicates that Vanbrugh's extension was no deeper from north to south than the first house, and thus did not include the big room on the east side of the court. Carter, by whose time all these additions had been made, calls the present, Classical entrance porch, "modern". Vanbrugh's addition, nearly symmetrical in itself, had the effect of making the whole house asymmetrical, bringing it almost naturally a stage nearer the Picturesque. His reason for the enlargement may have been practical, a change from bachelor pad to family home, for in January, 1719, he married. By the summer of 1722 he was, as he told Lord Carlisle, "two Boys strong in the Nursery", although the second son died in infancy.
The first of the houses in the field was the bungalow (Fig 5), which Stukeley, who also drew it (1721), called "The Nunnery". (It has also been known as "Sherwood" and, wrongly, "Mince-Pie House"). Originally, as Mr Laurence Whistler concluded and as drawings at Elton confirm, it consisted of a symmetrical centre block joined by small courtyards to a detached single room on either side. These had substantial hearths, and the original name, perhaps, referred to a scheme to accommodate two of the architect's sisters in a way that combined companionship and solitude. However, the Nunnery was rated, in 1721, in the name of Captain Philip Vanbrugh, who rented it from Sir John from Christmas, 1720.
By 1743 the architect's widow and his only surviving child, Charles (killed two years later at Fontenoy), lived in it; on Lady Vanbrugh's death, in 1776, it passed, appropriately, to Philip's daughter. Buckler's drawing shows the courtyards made into extra rooms, with battlemented fronts and Venetian windows; as with all the buildings, the additions were made in a style sympathetic to the original.
The Martin photographs in the Greenwich Public Library include views of the "White Towers" that stood north and south of the Nunnery; their whiteness was due to special white bricks in contrast to the brown London Stocks of the Castle. According to a naive drawing of the field, in the National Maritime Museum (Chavnock's Views, Vol 3, page 27), they were originally identical, but Carter found the southern tower, built in 1723-24, much altered (Fig 6). The northern one, of 1722-23, was unaltered, and in an old photograph still corresponded to drawings at Elton of "The New White Tower" (Fig 7). Vanbrugh bequeathed the towers to his sisters, Victoria and Robina, the former apparently taking that on the north.
At the north-east corner of the field was Vanbrugh (Mince-Pie) House. This, which Stukeley drew, in 1722, as Castellulum Van-brugiense (or little castle), was built in 1721-22. It was first rated in 1723, and was bought Qutright by the architect's other seafaring brother, Captain Charles Vanbrugh, who had shared Sir William Saunderson's house with him. Itpassed to Charles's widow in 1740, and then to their son, Edward Vanbrugh. Edward inherited the White Towers in the 1770s, but moved to Bath, where he died in 1802. The elevation at Elton (Fig 8) shows Vanbrugh House before the addition of an attic storey and subsequent disfigurements, although in execution, all except the central windows were rectangular. It had a circular stair-tower (on the left) and a bow on the garden side.
Carter wrongly attributed the Red House to Vanbrugh. East of the Castle, it was built in 1736 and demolished in 1854. It would not be surprising if the spirit of Vanbrugh's houses infected their neighbour, as happened with most of his larger buildings. The small house, known as Beechcroft, which stood until the 1960s, although somewhat Vanbrugian, is not mentioned in Vanbrugh's account book.
When Carter wrote, the trees had grown up as Buckler drew them, including the great oak in the Castle courtyard which he believed to be "coeval with the pile, no doubt of the knight's planting". Symmetry balanced with asymmetry, architecture softened by landscape—a far cry perhaps from the garden city concept and its often mediocre progeny, but Carter felt its spell in the hands of a master.
So, probably, did Sir Joshua Reynolds, who, perhaps, had Blackheath in mind when he wrote, in discussing Vanbrugh's architecture, that "towers and battlements are so often selected by the painter and the poet to make a part of the composition of their landscape".
In July, 1722, Vanbrugh told Lord Carlisle that his two-year-old son Charles "knows Pillars, & Arches and Round Windows & Square Windows . . . talks every thing, is much given to Rhyming, and has a Great turn to dry joking ... is much pleas'd with a House I am building him . . . being a Tower of White Bricks". This might have been the archetypal Wendy House, but the account book refers to groundwork on "Charles's House" and "Jack's House", and these can be identified with the two towers and the two boys. Unless little Charles was indeed precocious, we may suspect that the games in the field, the rhymes and dry jokes, were the father's: he was the inspiration of the little colony on Greenwich Hill, and at his death, in 1726, the joy went from it.
Illustrations: 1 and 5, British Library; 2-4 and 6-8, the author.