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!
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
The success of Vauxhall naturally spawned imitators, but Vauxhall “outstripped all of them, not only in visitor numbers and longevity, but in the national and international renown achieved by the gardens, its use by writers as a setting in plays and novels, and the fact that its name became synonymous with the pleasure garden throughout Britain and all over the world.”
Ranelagh and Marylebone, however, did give Vauxhall’s founder a run for his money. S. Toupée, a correspondent from Scots Magazine (see last week’s post), writes:
It may not be amiss to tell you, the spirit of imitation increases amongst us every day. Vaux-hall has produced tickets and accommodations of the same nature, at Marybone, on this side of the Thames, and at Caper’s gardens, on t’other.”
Prior to its purchase by Daniel Gough, landlord of the neighboring Rose Tavern in 1737, Marylebone Gardens was “little more than a bowling green and gaming house.” In his attempt to imitate Vauxhall, “Gough built an outdoor Orchestra there… and installed an organ by Richard Bridge. In the winter of 1739-40 he added a Great Room for balls and suppers, facing the Orchestra.”
High quality music was the main attraction at Marylebone, and fireworks were added here decades before Vauxhall.
However, Marylebone did not even try to compete with Vauxhall in the visual arts, or in the order maintained in the gardens, and this proved to be its downfall; it was less selective of its visitors, and less proscriptive in the activities enjoyed by them, allowing the garden to become a haven for card-sharps and gamblers… Marylebone Gardens eventually closed, unmourned and leaving little trace, in 1778.
Opened in April 1742 by a syndicate of businessmen who saw the problems Vauxhall was having with inclement weather, Ranelagh featured a huge rotunda, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.
Large numbers of people could saunter, take refreshments and listen to music without any of the natural inconveniences of an English summer. The building itself, especially the great domed space inside, became an architectural wonder in its own right, attracting crowds just to see, even during construction. With its grand central orchestra stand rising to the roof, its two levels of supper-boxes around the walls, its elaborate plaster decorations and chandeliers, this mostly timber Rotunda, 185 feet in diameter, was a remarkable space… During its first year at least, the Rotunda was the subject of much talk among fashionable society; Catherine Talbot wrote to Elizabeth Carter just two months after it had opened, saying that London’s neighborhood
is enriched since you was here, with a building which I am told exceeds in taste and magnificence every one in Europe: to untravelled eyes like mine ’tis to be sure an amazing fine thing, and quite worth your coming to see it next year, by which time they may possibly have found all that it wants to make it complete; some use for it answerable to the fineness and stateliness of the structure, for to be sure it is quite vexatious at present to see all the pomp and splendour of a Roman amphitheatre, devoted to no better use than a twelvepenny entertainment of cold ham and chicken.
Ranelagh did give Vauxhall a run for its money, however, even “beating Vauxhall at its own game” for a time. However,
once it lost its novelty it also lost much of its appeal. It was always the least disreputable of the pleasure gardens, being free of strong liquor and of gambling. This attracted the older generation and the more conservative sector of the public, as did the half-crown admission cost (to include tea and coffee), which excluded a large section of the London population. It was this very respectability, and the limited opportunities for change, that eventually drove away the fashionable set of the next generation and led to Ranelagh’s final downfall.
Like Marylebone, and indeed like Vauxhall itself, Ranelagh started to run into real difficulties around 1780, when, because of riots in London and perceived threats of invasion from across the Channel, the public enjoyment of frivolous pleasures had become socially less acceptable. Its proprietors battled on for another twenty years, but finally gave up 1803, unable to adapt to the demands of a new and more demanding public.
Vauxhall Reigns Supreme
…the al fresco character of Vauxhall, and its intimations of physical and moral danger, were essential features of its popular appeal. The Rotunda undeniably kept Ranelagh’s visitors’ feet dry, and eliminated any element of risk, but once everybody had seen and been seen by everybody else, the circular promenade became profoundly dull and repetitive. The walks at Vauxhall, although all straight and at right angles to one another, were at least all different, and allowed visitors to choose which way they walked, and to escape the bright lights, while still hearing the music.
None of Vauxhall’s rivals encompassed such a strong moral ideology as Vauxhall, and few invested anything like the same amounts as Tyers in the design or in the artworks that decorated and themed their gardens. It is certainly due in part to these factors that Vauxhall succeeded above its competitors.
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