Blenheim Palace,  Woodstock,  Oxfordshire
Early 18th Century

Click on photos to enlarge
Notes in italics from Oxfordshire by Jennifer Sherwood and Nikolaus Pevsner (1974)
Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

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Built 1705-1725 with funds presented by Queen Anne to John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, as a token of the nation's gratitude for his defeat of the French army at Blenheim on the Danube in 1704. The architect was John Vanbrugh assisted by Nicholas Hawksmoor.

George III exclaimed on first seeing Blenheim "We have nothing to equal this", and rightly, as by comparison the royal residences of England seem provincial, whereas Blenheim ranks in scale and magnificence with the great Baroque palaces of Europe and as a work of art surpasses many of them in quality.

From John Summerson's "The Classical Language of Architecture" (Thames and Hudson 1980):

"It is easily one of the most complex classical buildings in all Europe. Vanbrugh fused in his work two very different influences. One was what you would expect - a passionate love of Roman architecture and all that the great masters and theorists had done with it (in that he had the fullest possible support from his colleague, Hawksmoor). The other influence was an unexpected one for his time: Vanbrugh had a strong feeling for medieval castles and for those most daring of all English buildings, the great towered and turretted houses of Elizabethan and Jacobean times. At Blenheim these two influences merge in the exciting and apparently chaotic result you see. But Blenheim is not chaotic: it is most beautifully and logically put together."

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North front: Great Court

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W and S front

Summerson continues:
"Take first those two towers, left and right, heavily rusticated and crowned by a mass of piers and pinnacles. There are in fact four of these towers. They mark the four corners of a rectangle: they pin Blenheim down to the soil.

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These towers have no classical order. The rest of the house has: it is controlled by two orders - a fifty foot Corinthian and a Doric half the height, and those two orders play a sort of counterpoint between, into and out from the towers. The centre block of the house is Corinthian - fully articulated columns in the portico, pilasters on either flank. The Doric order is, as it were, hiding in this block; it is just detectable in the sides of the ground-floor windows: three each side of the portico. But in the wings, out it comes. There is a double beat, then it wheels round. Another double beat: it turns, enters the towers - it disappears. Then out it marches from the near side of each tower, marches forward till it is returned as a formal entry with steps inside and a flourish of arms above. That is very roughly the layout of this architectural manoeuvre, this still choreography.

There is a great deal more to Blenheim than that. There is the way the verticals of the portico shoot up through the pediment and then run back to meet the gable of the hall - a truly dramatic, just not melodramatic, invention."

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Great Court, east and west wings: The gateways to the kitchen and stable courtyards have banded rustication and ringed Doric columns.

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The South Front is quiet by comparison (with the north front), but skilfully composed, with a square tower at either end and a gradual break forward in the centre towards the portico . The sculptural treatment of the orders with the progression from pilasters to half-columns and free-standing columns in the centre owes much to Wren's late work. The columns of the portico repeat the arrangement of the main entrance, but it has a straight entablature. 

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The huge carved brackets of  (the tower) cornices suggest a medieval corbel table. ... On the corner towers are rounded arcaded temples with small flying buttresses set diagonally. They are surmounted by pinnacles composed of piled-up canon balls, reversed fleur-de-lys, and ducal coronets. There are smaller satellite turrets and a forest of other strange shapes, a sculptural kaleidoscope, shifting from every angle.

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The clock towers over the kitchen and stable wings are even more complex, a series of interlocking pediments and arches.

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The E and W fronts both have a curved centre bay. The west front is larger, the full height of the building, with caryatids between the windows of the attic storey, a detail indebted to Borromini. The curve of the wall is however timid by comparison with Roman Baroque and little more than a large bay window.

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The massive East Gateway is also the water tower. It is of especially menacing character, with an arch flanked by bastions resting on canon balls. The wrought-iron gates are of c.1890; a portcullis would be more appropriate. In 1766-75 Sir William Chambers made a silly attempt to prettify it with garlands and statues in niches.

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Inner side of East Gateway(in Kitchen Court).

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The Kitchen Court is of a rugged military character, Romanesque rather than Gothic Revival. Two sides of the courtyard are arcaded and have a castellated parapet, The arches, of two orders without mouldings, are interrupted by heavy Doric porches with open pediments.

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Kitchen Court, gateway to Great Court.

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The East Formal Garden is a parterre designed by Achille Duchene in 1908 in an attempt to reconstruct Sarah Churchill's flower garden which stood on this site. In the background, the Orangery with arched windows and a Doric porch.

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The Water Terrace Gardens were formed in 1925-30, also by Duchene. Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor had suggested a water garden here but it was never made. The present gardens are of two great terraces connected by a wall with small cascades and caryatids.

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In the lower garden is a fountain with an obelisk, at the base of which are four river gods and seahorses on a rock. It was presented to the first Duke of Marlborough in 1710 by the Spanish ambassador to the Papal Court and is a small copy of Bernini's fountain in the Piazza Navona in Rome.

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(Originally) the state approach was from the N, across a steep valley in which ran the river Glyme, no more than a shallow stream. To cross it Vanbrugh built the Grand Bridge ... Its immense size was out of all proportion to the stream which it crossed ... (In 1765-75, Capability Brown) provided an inspired setting for it when he dammed the river to form two long lakes joined at the bridge. In so doing he raised the water level about 15 ft, up to the imposts of the arches.  


Blenheim Palace's Web Site

Detailed history of the building of the palace and later development - from the Victoria County History at British History Online

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