As we were in Oxford, we thought we’d have a look at a building on St Michael’s Street, close to the Oxford Union, that had the reputation of being by Sir John Vanbrugh. It probably isn’t, but it’s an intriguing bit of Baroque architecture that has a surprising sturdiness and monumentality for such a small street. It’s called Vanbrugh House and Pevsner thought it was a parody of Blenheim, which seems a bit unkind (however, it does look a bit like Vanbrugh’s Goose-Pie House at Whitehall, demolished in 1898).
Whether or not the great architect designed it, it’s totally unlike Oxford’s other architecture. Vanbrugh did have connections with the building, since it was the home of Bartholomew Peisley II (1654-1715): the master mason who worked under the architect at Blenheim Palace. Peisley built the Grand Bridge, with its hefty keystone (a feature that also crops up on the facade of Vanbrugh House). We know from Vanbrugh’s letters that he particularly loved the bridge and went to great lengths to persuade the Duchess of Malborough of its merits.
Did Peisley echo his work in the facade of his own house? Did Vanbrugh help him with the design? It’s unlikely that we will be able to answer these questions, but I do like to imagine Sir John visiting Mr Peisley there for dinner: admiring the keystones, the pilasters and the playful shelf on the third storey (a sort of naked entablature).