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!
Thomas Bish and Frederick Gye, who took over management of the Gardens in 1821, decided that “the traditional formula of concerts, suppers, and fireworks” had to be expanded in order to compete with Astley’s Amphitheatre and the West End theaters. In addition to a revamped decor and a grand Panoramic Scene “in lieu of the old Cascade,’ a Grand Masked Fete in honor of the coronation of George IV was held on July 23. Among the attractions was a 24-foot transparency of “His Majesty in his Coronation Robes, with a distant view of Westminster Abbey, attended by Minerva, and a great number of Allegorical figures” painted by Henry Singleton RA. This lavish event included
- numerous illuminated devices, representing ‘national trophies… designed for the occasion
- Monsieur Chalons, magician
- Ramo Samee, Indian juggler
- Mr. Wilson, tightrope performer
- Mr. Gyngell’s troop of tightrope dancers
- Fantoccini and his Ombres Chinoises (shadow puppets)
- dancers, including the “celebrated English morris dancers”
- military savoyards, Pandeans, Scotch, and other bands
- premier performance of A Grand National Ode by the orchestra
- supper by Mr. Ward of Bond Street
- performance of one of Handel’s coronation anthems
This very successful event was repeated the next day, but the death of Queen Caroline of Brunswick the following day definitively ended any further repetitions.
Transparencies and Optical Devices
The Heptaplasiesoptron, otherwise known as the ‘Fancy Reflective Proscenium’ was built in 1821 by Mr. Bradwell of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. It was composed of
A number of large plates of looking-glass placed in the form of a semi-hexagon, which constitute the walls of the exhibition; and in these seven points of reflection are gained for the view of several illuminated revolving pillars and palm trees, twining serpents, and a fountain of real water; the whole lighted by coloured lamps and brilliant cut-glass chandeliers. Before this splendid scene is exhibited (which is from ten till one o’clock) it is hidden by two curtains of azure-blue silk, richly fringed and ornamented with gold.
The Submarine Cave:
The back scene of this exhibition is a rich fancy view, consisting of a water-fall, castles, and a fine romantic landscape beyond; this has a peculiarly good effect as a day scene. Before it is placed the rocky entrance to a marine cavern, the arch of which is eighty feet in the interior span; and within this entrance are placed the Water Works. This exhibition commences at 10 o’clock, when it is brilliantly lighted up with concealed lamps.
…Made of wood and canvas, it represented the interior of a hermit’s cottage, with the hermit ready by lamplight. First installed in 1757, this too was painted by Mr Thorn and… was presumably constantly re-painted. The Hermitage became a fixture and was soon supplied with a live hermit, a fortune-teller.
The Thorns: Staff Artists
The Thorns, father and son (Francis), seem to have been the main staff artists…; their task was to change or renew the views and transparencies on show at regular intervals. So industrious were they that it is almost impossible to keep up with the succession of spectacular views that graced the gardens.
Over the years, these included:
- “a view of Naples by moonlight, with a vivid representation of Mount Vesuvius during an eruption”
- Rotterdam by Moonlight
- Paris from the Observatory
- a Storm off the Cape of Good Hope
- Fingal’s Cave
- Views of Captain Ross’s Voyages to the North Pole
- a moonlight scene of the ruins of an Italian abbey
- ‘a stupendous diorama of the Golden Temple of Honan’
- a model of St. Mark’s Square in Venice
- ‘a dioramic picture of the proposed new Houses of Parliament after the designs of Mr. Barry’
- ‘a Grand Moving Panorama of the voyage of the Nassau balloon up to 400 ft in length’.
The Royal Gardens, Vauxhall
On June 3, 1822, the gardens opened under a new title, issued by Royal Warrant: “The Royal Gardens, Vauxhall.” The new king had visited the gardens frequently as Prince of Wales, and winning his patronage a great promotional coup. “The main entrance was rebuilt, with a portico surmounted by a large carved Royal Arms.”
Juvenile Fetes for Children
Saturday having been long considered problematic due to the objections of evangelical clergymen to keeping the gardens open after midnight, the new proprietors decided to hold a Juvenile Fete for children. “The first of these took place on 13 July 1821, starting at 5:30 and ending by 10 p.m. With much the same program as an ordinary night. It proved hugely popular.”
Dancing in the Gardens
Having been granted a licence for Public Music and Dancing (spectator dancing only), “…of the 1823 season two new theaters were erected: one with appropriate scenery and decorations for the Juvenile Ballets; the other, in the Rotunda, for a ‘Novel Entertainment, diversified with dialogue, songs, and imitations’… The first ballet was Cendrillon, danced entirely by children, although adults took part in subsequent years.
The summer of 1825… was most notable for the appearance of one of those strange characters who were drawn to Vauxhall from time to time. This was ‘The Aerial,’ the pseudonym of Joseph Leeming, whose eccentric behavior made him briefly the centre of attention. He claimed that his surpassing beauty was ‘without equal in nature or art, this or in any other age of the globe’. Having arrived in London from Manchester, he donned a blue and silver jacket, theatrical trunks or short breeches, silk stockings and blue kid shoes, with a double frill or ruff round his neck and wristbands trimmed with lace. Once in the gardens, he was taken by most visitors to be one of the performers, because he was not wearing a hat. But towards the end of the evening, people began to ask who or what he was. As The Times of 2 July 1825 reported:
An individual in a splendid dress of Spanish costume has excited much attention at Vauxhall Gardens. Having walked or rather skipped round the promenade, with a great air of consequence, saluting the company as he passed along, he at length mingled amongst the audience in the front of the orchestra, and distributed a number of cards on each which was written ‘The Aerial challenges the whole world to find a man that can in any way compete with him as such.’ After having served about three or four hundred of these challenges, he darted off like lightening, taking the whole circuit of the Gardens in his career, and made his exit through the grand entrance into the road where a carriage was waiting for him, into which he sprang and was driven off.
…His final visit to Vauxhall was on the evening of the Juvenile Fete, when he got drunk, and slept in a cloakroom until morning. After this he was informed that he would be refused entry to the gardens on any future occasion.
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
So much fabulous information on Vauxhall! Thanks Susana 🙂