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!
Following Jonathan Tyers’s death in 1767, his son Jonathan Tyers the younger managed the gardens, along with the assistance of his sister Elizabeth Wood and other family members, until 1786. At that time, the responsibility for the park was passed on to Bryant Barrett, who was Tyers the younger’s son-in-law, married to his only daughter, Elizabeth.
Barrett was a wax chandler by trade, which was a fortunate coincidence, since Vauxhall Gardens must have been spending a fortune on candles and lighting fixtures.
The most visible aspect of Barrett’s initiative appears in the start of regular newspaper advertisements giving details of the musical programmes for each evening; but it was also at this time that proprietors began to sponsor sailing matches on the Thames.
Lean years at Vauxhall
The 1770’s and early 1780’s had been lean ones for Vauxhall, partly because of the increase in crime and vandalism within its walks; but bad behaviour was clearly not the proprietors’ only problem. …quite apart from financial depression in the early 1770’s and grim news from the American colonies, the appalling weather of the summers of 1775-7 had cost the Tyers family a great deal. …
Samuel Arnold finally had to close Marylebone Gardens in 1778… No clear reason is given for this, but the complaints of local residents, especially about the fireworks, are bound to have been a contributor factor. Ironically, Marylebone’s initial advantage in being so close to London had become its eventual downfall.
The Jubilee of 1786
The approach of the half-century mark of the opening of Vauxhall Gardens “must have come as a godsend to Barrett at the start of his proprietorship.”
The last great fashionable event had been the hugely successful Ridotto al Fresco of 1769. In a conscious attempt to remind people of the ‘good old days’, when the gardens had last been patronised by fashionable society, the design of the ticket for the vent of the event of seventeen years earlier was adapted for the 1786 Jubilee.
In preparation for the event, which took place on 29 May 1786, the following renovations were completed:
- The buildings around the Grove were painted in an elegant pale blue and white livery, and flowering shrubs were planted to appeal to the modern taste in gardening.
- The Rotunda’s interior decoration was completely renewed, with modern mirrors, and the Ionic columns of the Pillared Saloon were renewed with a rich deep pink scagliola. Window frames were replaced and draped with tasselled crimson and silver fabric, and the Rotunda Orchestra was filled with evergreen plants under a decorated ceiling. In the other recess (where the original Rotunda Orchestra had been housed), the large transparent painting of George, Prince of Wales (later the Prince Regent and George IV) in a noble classical pose was replaced with another transparency depicting an amphitheatre of the Corinthian order, through which could be seen a perspective view of a garden. (Apparently, the original transparency was criticized by some as having nothing in common with the Prince’s true character.)
- 14,000 coloured lights and wreaths of artificial flowers were draped around the pillars and in festoons around the cornices of the Covered Walks.
- A circular Grand Temple was set up at the crossing of the Grand South Walk and the Centre Cross Walk, “little more than a dome on eight classical columns.”
- The Centre Cross Walk was partly built over to give more dancing space in two temporary ballrooms, attached to the Grand Temple on the north and south. “The walls of these ballrooms were painted with Arcadian pastoral scenes beyond a range of Ionic columns decorated with wreaths of flowers, while the ceiling showed a sky filled with ‘tender variegated clouds.’” …In each of the ballrooms was an alcove for the musicians, and others for tables stocked with lemonade, capillaire, and orgeat (soft drinks flavoured with orange flower or almond syrup.) The whole strucutre was of course illuminated with thousands of coloured lamps ‘producing a refugency of light that dazzles and surprises.’
- On the site of the former Prince’s Pavilion (built for George III’s father), a new room was created for Prince George and his party.
- The entrance to the gardens on Kennington Lane was renewed and enlarged, soon becoming the main coach-entrance, later to be expanded with cloakrooms, waiting-rooms, and other public facilities.
The Jubilee was attended by somewhere between five and six thousand people, most in fashionable and elegant costume, a few in fancy dress, which in this period meant smart dress with added details, such as feathers, flowers, ribbons, ruffs, etc., not character costumes.
There were last night above 6000 persons present, and among them some of the first people in the kingdom, but as is always the case at Vauxhall, it was a mélange; the cit and the courtier jostled each other with the usual familiarity; the half guinea was no repellent to the middling order; John Bull loves to shoulder his superiors in rank, his betters he’ll not allow them to be; and where he pays as much for admission, he never considers them to be more than his equals.
On the following day, the gardens were opened to four thousand people who were not able to get tickets after those for the first event were sold out.
A successful season
Barrett took advantage of the popular trend of holding military fetes to honor the huge numbers of soldiers coming home from North America by promoting a patriotic tone to this one, with large transparencies framed by martial and naval motifs.
Later that year, when George III escaped a “rather pathetic assassination” by a housemaid with a knife outside St. James’s Palace, Vauxhall celebrated the king’s survival with a new patriotic song by James Hook and an organ concerto with variations on God Save the King.
Barrett’s first season at the helm “once more confirmed Vauxhall as a popular and respectable venue for fashionable society during the 1780’s. However,
…the public attitude towards the gardens was beginning to undergo a fundamental change. The largely unquestioning indulgence was now a thing of the past, and questions were being asked as to whether a pleasure garden was more of a nuisance than a benefit. The establishment’s opposition to public entertainment was strengthening.
Neighbors who had complained for years about the disruption caused by those returning home in the early hours of the morning, were starting to be heard.
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
What an interesting post. Thank you for sharing it.
I could just look at those kinds of pictures all day. Something so fascinating about it, there are so many details.