Historic Vanbrugh Letter saved for the nation!

There has been some incredible generosity from KWAG members over the last couple of weeks in their support of our campaign to repatriate a letter written by Sir John Vanbrugh regarding the construction of Kings Weston House. We are delighted to announce that we’ve met our fundraising target of £500 to bring the letter back to Bristol in partnership with the Friends of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Our contribution will now be added to the £900 the Friends have granted towards the purchase, and the letter added to the collections of the Bristol Archives at B-Bond in Bristol. Once it arrives, and is appropriately conserved, the letter will be available to study by anyone, and we hope that an exhibition celebrating its acquisition might be a good way of thanking the donors.

Reconstruction of the Saloon as originally designed. 

The letter now in the process of acquisition dates from December 1713, a time when Edward Southwell was able to walk around the rough floors of the house. From a letter the same September, also in the Archive, we know that it had taken just fifteen months to build the walls of the house up to roof level and have begun leading the roof. In the December letter Vanbrugh discusses Edward Southwell’s hopes to cut costs by leaving out the stone vaults of the basement level which, apparently, were only constructed after the shell of the house was already complete. We also discover that the original plan was to have a stone floor in the great stair hall. Whilst the change to a timber floor appears to have been undertaken against Vanbrugh’s advice Southwell’s idea to extend the stair itself into the cellar was, fortunately, abandoned in favour of the “Little Stair” that was still in construction.

Vanbrugh also discusses the plans to build his intended Kitchen wing at the rear of the building; this structure was built, but later demolished and replaced a few decades later. The letter confirms Vanbrugh’s authorship of the Great Terrace and, from what he writes, he is clearly pleased with Southwell’s decision to execute his designs for it.

Whether Vanbrugh ever returned to Kings Weston in the Spring of 1714 as he promised is not known, but certainly he was keen to make a “trial with boards” to make sure the distinctive chimneys made the effect he intended.

We’re grateful to Mark Small from Bristol Archives for transcribing the whole letter and presenting it along with images of the original. It can be viewed as a PDF here.

Vanbrugh’s original design for the kitchen wing, attached to the north corner of the main house 

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