• Bridge of size

    Last night’s edition of BBC television’s Countryfile contained a fascinating item on the abandoned suite of rooms hidden within the Grand Bridge at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Designed by the architect of that great early 18th century house to carry the main approach road over the Glyme river and up to the front door, it featured the same Neoclassical styling as the Palace. Inside, it contained an ingenious variety of spaces intended for summer entertaining but if you visit the house today, you’ll find the bridge half-submerged in water.

    Blenheim Palace was built as a gift to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, on the instructions of Queen Anne following his victorious command of Allied forces at the Battle of Blindheim (Anglicized to Blenheim) on 13 August 1704. Fought as part of the War of the Spanish Succession, which ended ten years later, the battle saw a key defeat of French and Bavarian forces and helped secure Spanish territory for the Grand Alliance against the claims of Louis XIV.

    The monarch’s grant of a manor and funds for a new house must surely rate as one of the most generous in history. Marlborough was already 54, and quickly engaged the soldier, playwright and architect John Vanbrugh to build the vast, severely masculine Baroque house that exists today. It did, though, emerge from a campaign of construction marked by almost as much effort, reversal and blood as the fight on the continent; Sarah, the Duchess, frequently and famously clashed with Vanbrugh over the cost and details of the works and all three – client, wife and architect – ultimately fell out with the Queen as a result. That the house and its surroundings stand today as one of the most perfect ensembles of British architecture is thus something of a miracle.

    The Grand Bridge seems to have reflected this sometimes painful path in miniature, although that isn’t the word to describe its actual size. Over 400’ long and with a main arch 100’ wide, it was to have been 80’ high until Sarah vetoed both the balustrade and towers that topped the main span in Vanbrugh’s plan. Some panels of ‘frostwork’ or rustication were omitted from the external decorative scheme, but the remaining corbels, quoins and keystones were executed as planned. Internally the Duchess counted – somewhat sniffily, it seems – thirty three rooms, which included some with fireplaces and chimneys. It seems that the large room reached by boat in last night’s programme must be the ‘windowless chamber [… plastered and fitted with an elliptical arch as though for a theatre’ referred to in some descriptions.

    The bridge’s lofty rooms were to be entered quite easily in those days, from the banks of what was originally a modest body of water passing under it. The bridge was also not fully integrated with the land at either end for some time. Rubble and earth from the levelling of a small hill with the estate’s original ruined manor house on it – which dated to Henry I’s time and into which Vanbrugh had moved, much to Sarah’s annoyance) was eventually used to properly landscape the ends of the bridge into he sides of the existing river valley.

    Marlborough and Vanbrugh died within a few years of each other. It was Sarah who briefed another gardener on what Vanbrugh had intended, which led to a kind of interim stage for the gardens before Capability Brown came on the scene. A small lake to the east of the Grand Bridge fed formal canals under it, and a steam engine in one of the rooms pumped water up to the big cistern that sits over the east gate of the house. Only when Brown arrived and doubled the lake by damming the Glyme was the lower level of the bridge submerged. Its walls were re-cased to withstand the water, but its rooms, spiral staircases and corridors – all of which I was fascinated to hear of yesterday, though I was actually aware of the rooms’ basic story – were lost.

    It seems that stabilisation and restoration is the aim of the scanning project that yielded the absorbing wire-frame digital models seen in the item; no public access is intended. As such the bridge will

    remain as it has for the last three centuries, an architectural folly in the landscape of Brown’s Blenheim park. This is something of an irony given its past, but I suspect it must have pleased Brown. He employed tremendous slight-of-hand in enacting his desire to ‘recreate elements of idealized classical landscapes (especially as represented in the paintings of Claude and Poussin) in an English context, and in an English idiom’, as one academic has written. This ranged from planting trees to disguise the fact that a single ‘lake’ was actually two or three entirely separate bodies of water to using more greenery as a theatrical curtain of sorts, to be dramatically drawn aside by the progress of a carriage along a carefully-planned path to reveal the main house. Being able to appropriate an existing bridge with nothing more than the gentle rise of water must have seemed like Queen Anne’s gift had found another recipient.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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