Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Friday, November 19, 2010

Guest Author, Elyse Mady on 18th Century Pleasure Gardens

Today on History Undressed, I am pleased to introduce to you another debut author, Elyse Mady.  Today she will be discussing gardens with us.  But not just any gardens--pleasure gardens.  Enjoy!

18th Century Pleasure Gardens

by Elyse Mady 

Just like today, entertainment was big business in the 18th century. From mechanical clockworks to public assembly rooms like the Pantheon, pleasure gardens like Marylebone and Vauxhall, concerts, plays, spectacles, fireworks, and readings and sermons for the high minded, there was always something to catch the attention of a English person with a few shillings to spare.

Fashions changed, new excitements arose, out-of-date ones languished. Yet while London’s pleasure sites were certainly the largest and most diverse, celebrated in books like ‘Evelina’ and ‘Cecilia’ and immortalized in biting drawings by Rowlandson, by the end of the Georgian era, almost every town of a respectable size could boast of being home to events of a similar nature, at least some of time.

But lest you think that whiling away a few free hours was all anyone had on their mind, behind the crowds of giddy revellers, battles of a political, cultural and social kind were being played out with a ferocious, if often unspoken, intensity. It was only after the Restoration in the 1660s that public leisure activities like pleasure gardens slowly came into their own. As a result of these new activities, Culture – its consumption, its control and its dissemination – became a battleground, albeit a polite one, during the long 18th century, as changing economic realities, new technologies, new lifestyles and the continuing urban intensification, changed how individuals across social strata viewed themselves and their participation in the cultural dialogue of the era.
The middle class not only wanted to participate in the cultural dialogue, as time went on and their purchasing power increased, they also began determining the types and varieties of public entertainment on offer, eschewing the restrictive and often exclusive privileges of the upper classes in favour of activities that were more reflective of their lifestyles and moral concerns.

But frankly, who wants to think politics when there are pleasures like New Spring Gardens, or to give them their more familiar name, Vauxhall Gardens, to enjoy? Who knows? It’s a fine summer night. There might be fireworks on display, and Mr. Hook’s music to enjoy, supper in the Rotunda and perhaps, if you’re very lucky or very naughty (or both!), you’ll head down the dark walks for an assignation of the amorous sort.

James Boswell wrote that:

Vauxhall Gardens is peculiarly adapted to the taste of the English nation; there being a mixture of curious show, — gay exhibition, musick, vocal and instrumental, not too refined for the general ear; — for all of which only a shilling is paid.

The main walks were lit at night by hundreds and thousands of lights, suspended above revelers in the trees and from stands. Crowds of up to 60,000 people filled the gardens on occasion. In addition to the wide, central paths, there were countless ‘dark walks’ along which lovers and prostitutes alike strolled. There were concerts and music, often performed by leading stars. Songs and lyrics were composed on topical events: royal celebrations, naval battles, military success, and songbooks and concert programs with the lyrics and tunes were widely disseminated. Over time more fantastical features were built: new supper boxes, a music room, a Chinese pavilion, a gothic orchestra that accommodated fifty musicians, and ruins, arches, statues and a cascade.

A 1762 guide, “A Description of Vaux-hall Gardens, being a proper companion and guide for all who visit that place” describes the scene thus:

THESE beautiful gardens, so justly celebrated for the variety of pleasures and elegant entertainment they afford, during the spring and summer seasons, are situated on the south fide of the river Thames in the parish of Lambeth about two miles from London ; and are said to be the first gardens of the kind in England.

As they are commodiously situated near the Thames, that those who prefer going by water, can be brought within two hundred yards of this delightful place at a much easier expence than by land.

The season for opening these gardens commences about the beginning of May, and continues till August. Every evening (Sunday excepted) they are opened at five o'clock for the reception of company.

As you enter the great gate to which you are conducted by a short avenue from the road, you pay one shilling for admittance. The first scene that salutes the eye, is a noble gravel walk about nine hundred feet in length, planted on each side with a row of stately elm and other trees ; which form a fine vista terminated by a landscape of the country, a beautiful lawn of meadow ground, and a grand gothic obelisk, all which so forcibly strike the imagination, that a mind scarce tinctured with any sensibility of order and grandeur, cannot but feel inexpressible pleasure in viewing it.

Advancing a few steps within the garden, we behold to the right a quadrangle or square, which from the number of trees planted in it, 15 called the grove : in the middle of it, is a superb and magnificent orchestra of gothic construction curiously ornamented with carvings, niches, etc. the dome of which is surmounted with a plume of feathers, the crest of the prince of Wales. The whole edifice is of wood painted white and bloom colour. The ornaments are plaistic, a composition something like plaister of Paris, but only known to the ingenious architect who designed and built this beautiful object of

In fine weather the musical entertainments are performed here by a select band of the best vocal and instrumental performers. At the upper extremity of this orchestra, a very fine organ is erected, and at the foot of it are the seats and desks for the musicians, placed in a semi-circular form, leaving a vacancy at the front for the vocal performers. The concert is opened with instrumental music at fix o'clock, which having continued about half an hour, the company are entertained with a song : and in this manner several other songs are performed with sonatas or concertos between each, till the close of the entertainment which is generally about ten o'clock.

Public gardens like Vauxhall, with their emphasis on diversion, spectacle and social intermingling played a significant role in influencing taste, introducing fashionable trends and developing new cultural precepts, both for the emerging middle class and the defending upper classes. They merged the classical with the commercial, and made the exotic accessible to the everyman. They were playgrounds after a fashion and Vauxhall, as the largest, longest lived of all the spectacular English pleasure gardens, was enjoyed by Londoners and immortalized by its authors and painters, for nearly 200 years, until finally closing its doors forever in 1859.

About the Author:

An enthusiastic and voracious reader of everything from 18th century novels to misplaced cereal boxes, Elyse has worked as a freelance magazine writer for the past several years.

Her first work of fiction, The Debutante’s Dilemma, was published by Carina Press in the fall of 2010. She is also working on a number of contemporary romance manuscripts as well as a full length historical novel set in the 1780s.

In addition to her writing commitments, Elyse also teaches film and literature at a local community college. In her free time she enjoys (well, enjoys might be too strong a word – perhaps pursues with dogged determination would be better) never ending renovations on their century cottage with her intrepid husband and two boys. She blogs at www.elysemady.wordpress.com and can be found on Facebook and Twitter as @ElyseMady.

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