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Denham was born in Dublin to Sir John Denham, Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer, and his second wife Eleanor Moore, daughter of Garret Moore, 1st Viscount Moore. He was educated at Trinity College, Oxford and at Lincoln's Inn in London.
Denham became a Member of Parliament for Old Sarum in 1661, became a Fellow of the Royal Society on 20 May 1663, and became a Knight of the Bath. He built or commissioned the original Burlington House in Piccadilly in about 1665.
After the Restoration Denham became Surveyor of the King's Works, probably for reasons of his earlier political services rather than for any aptitude as an architect. John Webb, who, as Inigo Jones's deputy had the competence to have served in the post, and complained "though Mr. Denham may, as most gentry, have some knowledge of the theory of architecture, he can have none of the practice and must employ another." There is no evidence that he personally designed any buildings, although he seems to have been a competent administrator; he may however have played some part in the design of his own home, Burlington House. John Webb was appointed Denham's deputy by 1664 and did Denham's work at Greenwich (from 1666) and elsewhere.
Denham made an unhappy marriage, and his last years were clouded by dementia. With Denham's increasing mental incapacity, Charles II requested in March 1669 that Christopher Wren be appointed Denham's "sole deputy"; Wren succeeded him as King's Surveyor upon his death two weeks later. Denham was buried in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Denham began his literary career with a tragedy, The Sophy (1641), but his poem, Cooper's Hill (1642), is the work by which he is remembered. It is the first example in English of a poem devoted to local description, picturing the Thames Valley scenery round his home at Egham in Surrey. Denham wrote many versions of this poem, reflecting the political and cultural upheavals of the Civil War.
Gilfillan wrote of Denham and his contemporary Edmund Waller: "Neither Denham nor Waller were great poets; but they have produced lines and verses so good, and have, besides, exerted an influence so considerable on modern versification, and the style of poetical utterance, that they are entitled to a highly respectable place amidst the sons of British song."
- Quoted in Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, 3rd ed. (Yale University Press), 1995, s.v. "Denham, Sir John;" Denham has a brief entry ex officio.
- George Gilfillan, "Life of Sir John Denham", in The Poetical Works of Edmund Waller and Sir John Denham, ed. George Gilfillan (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1857), p. 203.
- Allen Reddick, The Making of Johnson’s Dictionary 1746-1773 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 166.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Wikisource
- H.M. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840 (1997) ISBN 0-300-07207-4
- Kelliher, W. H. (January 2008). "Denham, Sir John (1614/15–1669)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/7481. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
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With: Edward Nicholas