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Architecture & design

Bawdiness, danger and respectability in Vauxhall pleasure gardens

— September 2011

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Giovanni Antonio Canal, Il Canaletto, Vauxhall Gardens, the Grove and Grand Walk, oil on canvas, c.1751 (Compton Verney, Warwickshire.)

Vauxhall Gardens: A History

By David Coke and Alan Borg

Pleasure gardens, resorts of entertainment, eating and drinking but mostly of sauntering and social encounter, flourished widely in the towns and cities of Georgian England. Londoners were eager to escape the noise, the bad air and the sheer crowdedness of the expanding city and to enjoy the sound of nightingales in the semi-rural area of Vauxhall, which is absurdly hard to imagine in its disheartening urban concentration today.  The trip would usually begin with a boat ride across the Thames, adding to the sense of occasion.

What is remarkable is the long life of the project – nearly two centuries, from 1661 to 1859. Originally known as the Spring Gardens, it was patronized by Charles II and fondly recorded by Samuel Pepys. Pepys’ accounts establish what were to become the essential ingredients of the visitors’ experiences, the cost of the food, the rowdiness of parties of young men and the ambiguous status of many of the females in attendance.  This bawdiness and hint of danger no doubt contributed much to its attraction for respectable women, who sometimes came masked, as much as for the men.  Though there were always various degrees of professionals present, from the high-status courtesans and mistresses of royalty and the aristocracy to the ‘demi-reps’, who had a kind of hostess role.

Jonathan Tyers was the proprietor who established its characteristic ambiance during the first half of the 18th century.  As well as exercising a keen entrepreneurial instinct, he set out to promote the general betterment of social behaviour through the appreciation of art and music for all degrees of the public who paid their price of entry.  This blurring of the strict rules of social segregation that shaped most aspects of life at the time was at the heart of the success of the Gardens.  Certainly it attracted the highest echelons of society, with Frederick Prince of Wales a frequent visitor, and the smart set parading the latest fashions. Tyers expected that the young apprentice and the artisan family would conduct themselves in an appropriately genteel manner.  To assist this tone of relaxation of social distinction, he decreed that any servants that the prosperous or titled visitor might bring along should not wear livery.  No doubt, there was much mutual amusement in the appearance and behaviour of all the strands of society present.

It is probable that Hogarth exercised considerable influence on the direction of contemporary art displayed within the gardens. Very little has survived because the painting decorating the supper boxes and the constantly changing architectural features were essentially of a temporary nature.It was decided that the real bits of South London nature visible at the ends of the walkways should be hidden behind large picturesque or allegorical painted scenes. These were particularly suited to the imagination and techniques of the theatre designer,  Francis Hayman, who emerges from the book’s illustrations as a delightfully competent exponent of the genre of figures enlivening a rococo landscape, reminiscent of Watteau, and seen in the easy intimacy of his portraits of the Tyers family.

Georgian London was seeing the rise of new audiences for serious music but Vauxhall’s selling point was the open air concert that allowed the enjoyment of music alongside the diversions of the table and the promenade. Music by Arne and Handel and Boyce was performed to high standards. An organ and giant kettle drums overcame some of the problems of outdoor acoustics.

But it was the lighting that particularly amazed visitors, when thousands of oil lamps, later on in various colours, would be illuminated seemingly instantaneously, by means of a system of linked fuses.

It is remarkable how long the Vauxhall Gardens were able to survive, well into the Victorian period.  The proprietors had constantly to devise novelties to respond to the changing tastes of visitors.  The new, more middle-class audience demanded the thrills of the circus and the Vaudeville. There were tightrope dancers, balloon ascents, dramatic recreations of Vesuvius erupting, and military battles, all enhanced by firework displays.  In spite of the best efforts of successive managers, however, audiences declined and bankruptcy ensued, leading to a final closure in 1859.

This compendiously assembled history offers a full insight into this important aspect of social history and popular culture, and, if the mind of the reader might occasionally wander in the face of the volume of information, it will quickly revive before the parade of contemporary images, illustrating the light-hearted antics of the British at play. This history of Vauxhall Gardens provides the most complete account to date of the most celebrated example. It will be welcomed by all readers with an interest in the cultural and social life of Britain that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Vauxhall Gardens: A Historyby David Coke and Alan Borg is published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2011. 400 pp., 80 colour/200mono illus. ISBN 97080300173826


Robert Radford
University of East Anglia

Media credit: Courtesy Compton Verney, Warwickshire

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