Venice-on-Thames

Amanda Vickery

  • BuyVauxhall Gardens: A History by Alan Borg and David Coke
    Yale, 473 pp, £55.00, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 300 17382 6

Eighteenth-century historians can’t get enough of pleasure gardens. They seem to crystallise the new and distinctive features of Georgian society and culture in one fabulous setting. As places of commerce masquerading as wooded groves, pleasure gardens offered idealised rus in urbe. They could seem poetic in the dusk as the visitor listened to the evening chorus of resident songbirds, but were transportingly magical as night fell and hundreds, if not thousands, of lights were illuminated in the trees and colonnades. We are so accustomed to electricity that it is difficult to imagine the thrill of these oil lamps in an era when most relied on the fire in the grate and a smelly tallow candle to hold back the night.

Thomas Rowlandson, ‘Vaux-Hall’ (c.1784).
Thomas Rowlandson, ‘Vaux-Hall’ (c.1784).

For the price of a ticket, one could enjoy musical performances and refreshments al fresco, or simply see and be seen. Princes rubbed shoulders with prostitutes, duchesses with doctors’ daughters: the social mix was a large part of the gardens’ attraction at the time and our fascination with them now. They seem to have epitomised the comparative openness of a polite and commercial people addicted to congregation, artifice and performance.

Unsurprisingly, the most famous pleasure gardens were in London. Vauxhall, Ranelagh and Marylebone are the three best known, though there is evidence that at least 64 metropolitan venues were in business between 1661 and 1871. Outside London, urban pleasure gardens such as Spring Gardens in Leeds (in existence from 1715), Spring Gardens in Bath (from 1742), Moore’s Spring Gardens in Norwich (1750s), Vauxhall Gardens in Bristol (1750s and 1770s) and the New Ranelagh Gardens in Newcastle (1760) were quite staid, drawing in socially more homogeneous customers from the provincial gentility.

Private pleasure gardens attached to noble houses and royal courts have a long history, but Vauxhall Gardens, which opened on the South Bank of the Thames in 1661, might well have been the first commercial pleasure garden in Europe. The business flourished for two centuries, finally closing in 1859. Vauxhall’s special status, Alan Borg and David Coke argue in this hefty antiquarian tome, lies in its originality as a commercial venture, the changes it triggered in the social and cultural life of London, the extreme heterogeneity of the mingling crowds, the mass audience the gardens gave to modern music and popular song, and the revolution it triggered in mass catering and outdoor lighting. In the architecture of the garden buildings, the design of the interiors and the painting and sculpture it showcased, Vauxhall was, they claim, ‘the first true public gallery of modern British art’. It was also the site of patriotic pageants and jubilees, offering damp, chilly Albion its version of the carnivalesque: ‘anarchic, tumultuous, youthful, thrilling, kaleidoscopic and, for most people, totally foreign to their day to day lives’. Venice-on-Thames.

The royal parks, such as St James’s and Hyde Park, began opening to the public in the 17th century, while places like the Bear Gardens south of the river offered food and music, as well as bear-baiting, to more unruly customers. But the observant would have noticed something rather different about the Spring Gardens, as they were originally known, at Vauxhall. John Evelyn, an early visitor, described the site in July 1661 as ‘a pretty contriv’d plantation’. The trees there were said to be a hundred years old in 1661. The gardens offered ‘a universal withdrawing room for the city’, as Borg and Coke put it, the impression of separateness emphasised by the fact that until Westminster Bridge opened in 1750 most visitors got there by boat. The site was carefully chosen: the South Bank had a long history as a site of commercial entertainments; the river was the chief thoroughfare in the city; and Vauxhall was conveniently close to the market gardens of South London and safe from the stink of the city. Pepys mentioned Vauxhall in his diary 23 times between 1662 and 1668. He wrote about the arrival by river, the expensive food, the nightingales singing, the acrobats and fiddlers and the entertainers who made animal sounds, the arbours for romance and the drunken groups of men pestering pretty women.

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[*] ‘“All Together and All Distinct”: Public Sociability and Social Exclusivity in London’s Pleasure Gardens, c.1740–1800’ (Journal of British Studies, Vol. 51, No. 1, January 2012).