The architecture of the house itself clearly indicates the taste and training of its builder. Vanbrugh shared the enthusiasm of the day for classical work, as understood and developed, whether well or ill, by the Italians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; but with characteristic disregard of law, he thought to combine classical severity with the fancifulness natural in a northerner and a playwright. Thus, while the general scheme of the south front, for instance, is distinctly severe, the massive towers at its ends are surmounted by fantastic masses of open stone-work, most quaintly finished off with arrangements of cannon-balls and coronets. Throughout he repeatedly made use of classical members with strange disregard to their structural intention. Silvester, the French artist employed to make designs for the decoration of the salon, sniffed contemptuously at Vanbrugh’s Gothic tendencies. “I can not approve of that double line of niches. It suggests the facade of a Gothic church.” And then with savage delight he announced his discovery that much of the design was merely an unintelligent imitation of the Palazzo Farnese at Florence.
Certainly, in spite of Vanbrugh’s attempt to achieve at once dignity and lightness, the probable impression made by the building on the casual observer is, that it is ponderous without being stately, and irregular without being tasteful. But the final feeling of any one whose fate it is to study it at leisure will assuredly be one of respect, even of enthusiasm, for the ability of Vanbrugh. It takes time to realize the boldness of the general design and the solidity of the masonry. In many parts there are about as many feet of solid stone as a modern architect would put inches of lath and plaster. The negative qualities of integrity and thoroughness are rare enough in work of the present day, now that the architect has delegated to the contractor the execution of his design.
The interior proportions of the rooms are generally admirable, and so perfectly was the work carried out that it is possible to look through the keyholes of ten doors, and see daylight at the end, over three hundred feet off. It is noticeable, further, that the whole was designed by a single man, there being no subsequent additions, as there are, for instance, at Chatsworth and Wentworth. Vanbrugh is responsible for good and bad qualities alike. One would imagine a priori that he had everything in his favor-unlimited money and a free hand. Far from this being the case, the stupendous work was accomplished under difficulties greater than any long-suffering architect ever had to contend with.
The beginning of the building was most auspicious. In 1705, the year after Blenheim, Queen Anne, in accordance with an address of the Commons, granted Marlborough the royal estate of which Woodstock was the center, with moneys to build a suitable house. The nation was anxious to show its gratitude to the General under whom English troops had won their first considerable victory on foreign soil since Agincourt; the Queen was for doing all in her power for her dear Mrs. Freeman; Marlborough saw in the scheme a dignified and legitimate method of perpetuating his fame; and so Vanbrugh was commissioned to build a house which should be worthy of all three. The work was at once begun on the existing scale. Difficulties sprang up when the Duchess began to lose, by her abuse of it, the power which she had always possessed over the Queen; when, too, it was seen that the architect’s estimate bore no sort of relation to the actual cost. Vanbrugh was often in the greatest straits for money, and wrote piteously to the Duchess and the Lord Treasurer Godolphin without the slightest effect. Things naturally grew worse when both the Duke and Duchess were dismissed from all their posts, in 1711; and at last, in 1721, the disputes culminated in a lawsuit successfully brought against the Duke by the workmen for arrears of pay, the defendant’s contention being that the Treasury was liable for the whole expense. The Duchess vented her displeasure on the unfortunate architect, whom she never credited with doing anything right. She carefully kept his letters, and made spiteful endorsements on them for the benefit of her counsel at the trial.
While Sarah was perpetually involving herself in quarrels with her architect, the Duke was in-directly furthering the progress of the building by a succession of victories abroad. Without taking an active part, he was yet much interested in the house, always looking forward to the time when he should live there in peace with his wife. When on a campaign he wrote to her nearly every other day, and in almost every letter there is a personal touch, showing his ever-present love for her, his keen anxiety to keep her love, and to win her approval of everything he did.
The main interest of Marlborough’s later life centered in Blenheim. The Duchess had done the lion’s share of the work of superintendence; it remained for him to arrange the many works of art he had bought and had been given during the war. There still exists an account of the prices he paid for tapestries made in Brussels, most of which are now on the walls of the house. Over the south front was placed a bust of Louis XIV., a trophy taken from the gates of Tournay.
Changes of fashion and of taste have left their mark on Blenheim; and, as the old oaks recall the joyousness of the Middle Ages, and the elms and cedars have a certain air of eighteenth-century stateliness, so perhaps the orchids, with their exotic delicacy, may be held typical of the decadent present. From the house many treasures, once part of its adornment, are now missed; and while books, pictures, and gems have disappeared, modern ideas of comfort have suggested the insertion of electric lights and telephones. To regret the treasures of the past is a commonplace; it would seem fitter to make the best of the advantages of the present.