18th Century Pleasure Gardens
by Elyse Mady
Fashions changed, new excitements arose, out-of-date ones languished.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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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