The third man: the provoked woman

Act 4
Location: Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, 1717
Surveyor: Sir John Vanbrugh, assisted by Nicholas Hawksmoor
Client: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough

EXT. LONG SHOT – DAY We see from afar a mass of yellow stone that appears not as a single palace, but as an entire city.2

The Long Gallery (unfinished), Blenheim Palace – day

Sir John Vanbrugh, heavily wigged, points the pointed end of a vernier caliper at Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. The pair are flanked by a large workforce and the third man. All overlook a huge gallery extending an entire wing of the palace. Tensions are high as Churchill has taken on an entirely new and cheaper workforce of masons, carpenters and craftsmen.3

VANBRUGH (speak angrily through clenched teeth and brandish the stirrup) Get those lesser men gone and bring back my Grinling Gibbons.4

CHURCHILL (carefree) He, like everything you do, is monstrous extravagance, Van.5 The queen is dead and the duke apoplectic; please finish my house.

THE THIRD MAN It’s not strictly a house, more a national war memorial.6 Although the toilets, kitchen and bedrooms feel like a home.

VANBRUGH (his anger does not subside at all) It’s a magnificent, theatrical, baroque masterpiece, that’s what it is! A pantheonesque form on the central axis with the Victory Column, surrounded by trees planted in military formation representing the battle. A bust of the vanquished Louis XIV makes my great labors and my despair look on forever. Not to mention the Thornhill ceilings.7

CHURCHILL (desperately) I fired Thornhill; I asked a Frenchman to do the ceiling of the saloon.8

THE THIRD MAN For a building that celebrates the victory over the French?

CHURCHILL (shrugging the shoulders) He did it for half price. Van, you’re fired. Return to Goose-Pie9 and put on your trotters, I’ll get Hawksmoorten complete this great mass of stone without charm or taste.11

VANBRUGH (pass out dramatically) Protect me, good heavens, what a flood of impertinence has here come upon me!12 You have your end madam, because I will trouble you no more.13

Vanbrugh walks away shouting over his shoulder

VANBRUGH Heavy lie, Earth! on me / For I have loaded you with heavy loads!14



1. The provoked woman (1697) is a comedy written by John Vanbrugh. The plot centers on an abusive marriage. The eponymous wife, Lady Brute, is provoked into infidelity by her sour husband. This outraged some sections of the catering society.

2. Description of Blenheim Palace from a letter dated March 10, 1740 from the German Jacob Friedrich, Baron Bielfeld.

3. The construction of Blenheim Palace has endured a beleaguered history, due to spasmodic funding, the downfall of the Marlboroughs and their subsequent exile. Construction resumed after the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and the return of the Marlboroughs. The 64-year-old Duke then suffered a stroke in 1716, leaving Sarah in control of the project. The Duchess constantly fought with Vanbrugh over money. She said: “I made Mr. Vanbrugh my enemy by the constant arguments I had with him to prevent his extravagances.” (See Colvin, Howard (2007). A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840
(4th ed, p850)

4. Grinling Gibbons was considered England’s finest woodcarver. The Anglo-Dutch sculptor is known for important works from the 17th and 18th centuries, notably at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

5. In the first scenes of the film The favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018), Sarah Churchill is offered a model of Blenheim Palace by Queen Anne because “we won, didn’t we?” Sarah Churchill remarks – with obviously affected sincerity: “It’s a monstrous extravagance.

6. Blenheim Palace was undoubtedly a reward for John Churchill for winning the Battle of Blenheim (1704) from a ‘grateful nation led by Queen Anne’. However, the construction mandate dated 1705, signed by the parliamentary treasurer the Earl of Godolphin, names Vanbrugh architect and specifies his attributions. Unfortunately for the Churchills, this warrant made no mention of the Queen or the Crown, which made the project subject to political infighting and inconsistent funding.

7. Vanbrugh’s architectural flair is often attributed to his other practice as a playwright, in which he fulfilled himself. In 1786, Joshua Reynolds wrote: “…in the buildings of Vanbrugh, who was both poet and architect, there is a greater display of imagination than we shall perhaps find in any other”. John Soane called Vanbrugh “the Shakespeare of architects”.

8. Churchill kept a close eye on finances. James Thornhill painted the battle scene on the Great Hall ceiling for £978. However, Churchill negotiated with Frenchman Louis Laguerre to complete the comparable drawing room ceiling for £500.

9. Vanbrugh’s house in Whitehall, London, was nicknamed “Goose-Pie House” (1701) after Jonathan Swift compared the house to the dish, known for its odd shape.

10. Hawksmoor was Vanbrugh’s assistant on several projects, including Blenheim. He remained to complete the palace after Vanbrugh’s dismissal.

11. Voltaire visited the palace in the fall of 1727 and described it in these terms. However, it is widely believed that Churchill, too, was unhappy with the design.

12. Lady Brute in The provoked woman (1697) by John Vanbrugh.

13. Direct quote from a letter from Vanbrugh to Churchill. The full quote continues: “…unless the Duke of Marlborough recover so far to protect me from such intolerable treatment”.

14. Abel Evans wrote an epitaph for Vanbrugh, which has never been used:

Beneath this stone, reader, investigation
The clay house of the late Sir John Vanbrugh.
Lay heavily on him, Earth! For him
I have loaded you with many heavy loads!

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Patrick Massey is a partner at CZWG

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