Vauxhall Gardens: A History
David Coke & Alan Borg
The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens is one of the places I’d love to slip back in time to visit, just to catch a glimpse of what it was like. After recently splurging to buy this lovely coffee-table book, I thought it might make a wonderful subject for a new blog series. But do buy the book too, if you can! The photos are fabulous!
“The Master Builder of Delight”
In 1729, the site of the “Vauxhall Spring-Gardens was leased to a twenty-seven-year-old entrepreneur called Jonathan Tyers, whose goal was to transform it from a sort of seedy rural tavern to a respectable venue for all social classes.
A fellmonger (dealer in animal hides or skins) by trade, Jonathan was not content to continue the family business, successful though it was. Driven by a desire to raise his family’s status—and improve the world as he did so—Tyers believed that culture and pleasurable entertainments should not be the sole prerogative of the upper classes, but that the middle and lower classes deserved to find some enjoyment in their lives as well.
Jonathan Tyers was a very complex character, with more than his fair share of contradictions and eccentricities. Upright, intelligent and self-assured, he also exhibited strains of arrogance and ambition. However, his ambitions were clearly projected chiefly upon his business rather than himself, while his personal aspirations were driven by a wish to raise his own status and that of his family to gentry, an object in which he succeeded at a remarkably early age. (p.35)
Through his association with The Wits’ Club, a social club for freethinkers, scholars, libertarians, and writers, Tyers became good friends with Charles Burney, Henry Fielding, William Hogarth, Harry Hatsell, Edward Moore, Thomas Cooke, Richard Dawson, and Leonard Howard. The club first met at Vauxhall Gardens later moved to a nearby tavern. Many of the ideas behind his development of the gardens came from the discussions at this club.
Although he never managed to mix with fashionable society in his lifetime, he was held in great respect and admiration by his peers, so much so that he was elected to the Royal Society of Arts in 1757, where he would have met many other prominent people, including Benjamin Franklin, when he visited London.
He and his creation were even featured in his friend Henry Fielding’s work of fiction, Amelia (1751).
The extreme Beauty and Elegance of this Place is well known to almost every one of my Readers; and happy is it for me that it is so; since to give an adequate Idea of it, would exceed my Power of Description. To delineate the particular Beauties of these Gardens, would, indeed, require as much pains and as much Paper too, as to rehearse all the good Actions of their Master [Tyers], whose Life proves the Truth of an Observation which I have read in some Ethic Writer, that a truly elegant Taste is generally accompanied with an Excellency of Heart; or in other Words, that true Virtue is, indeed, nothing else but true Taste.
Besides his goal of cleaning up the gardens’ reputation, Tyers hoped to use the venue to improve people’s lives “through contact beauty and quality.” In other words, he planned to provide the lower orders with both art and beauty, and also expose them to “polite society,” who would educate them by example.
His influence on the manners and morals of eighteenth-century society was to be far-reaching, and his patronage of artists and designers would change the face of British art. But it was his ideological beliefs and priorities, his egalitarianism and his conviction that the pursuit of pleasure was a basic human right, and a vital element of the balanced life, that would really motivate his proprietorship of Vauxhall Gardens.
The Ridotto al Fresco
Tyers’s first event at Vauxhall was a masquerade ball in the manner of the Italian carnival in the spring of 1731. Not much is known of this event, except that there was outdoor dancing in masquerade costume and was restricted to the upper classes.
By contrast, his second event in April of 1732, was attended by the poorer class of people, including “an oyster girl, a barber’s apprentice, a lawyer, an army captain, a doctor, a vicar and a number of prostitutes…”
The third event, considered to be the opening ceremony of Tyers’s Vauxhall Gardens, took place on 7 June 1732 and included the presence of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Under the guidance of John James Heidegger, Tyers created an extraordinary event that was talked about for years. A hundred armed soldiers were employed for the security of the distinguished guests, and he “hired the Westminster and Lambeth ferrymen for the whole night to carry his guests across the river and back.” Even with an admission fee of a guinea—which only the wealthy could afford—“between three and four hundred people actually attended the ridotto.” Besides the Prince of Wales’s entourage, the guests included politicians and their friends, “lawyers, bankers, printers, brewers, churchmen, military men and aristocrats.” The party broke up at around four in the morning. “The principal entertainments…were dancing and feasting, combined with the social intercourse between masked guests.”
While by most accounts—particularly in the view of the Prince of Wales—this event was a great success, other accounts indicate that there was a distinct theme of preaching and moralizing via buildings set up to show the misery and pain that result from excessive self-indulgence that may have not gone over too well with the party-minded guests.
In any case, his final ridotto, which was held two weeks later on 21 June, likely at the request of the Prince, who was having the time of his life, was attended by only half as many, which, considering his expenses, would likely have completely wiped out any profits from the four events. No doubt this is the reason Tyers held no such events during 1733 or 1734, although the gardens themselves likely continued to be open to the public.
Susana’s Vauxhall Blog Post Series
- Vauxhall Gardens: A History
- Vauxhall Gardens: Jonathan Tyers—“The Master Builder of Delight”
- Vauxhall Gardens: A New Direction
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Orchestra and the Supper-Boxes
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Organ, the Turkish Tent, and the Rotunda
- Vauxhall Gardens: Three Piazzas of Supper-Boxes
- Vauxhall Gardens: “whither every body must go or appear a sort of Monster in polite Company”
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Competition
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Artwork, Part I
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Artwork, Part II
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Music, 1732-1859
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Business Side
- Vauxhall Gardens: Developments from 1751-1786
- Vauxhall Gardens: Thomas Rowlandson’s Painting (1785)
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Third Generation of the Tyers Family and the Jubilee of 1786
- Vauxhall Gardens: An Era of Change (1786-1822), Part I
- Vauxhall Gardens: An Era of Change (1786-1822), Part II
- Vauxhall Gardens: An Era of Change (1786-1822), Part III
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part I
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part II
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part III
- Vauxhall Gardens: The Final Years, Part IV
- Vauxhall Gardens: Farewell, for ever
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Love your articles! I can’t wait to get my box set
As an artist, I really enjoyed your article and photos.