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Vauxhall Gardens: A History by David Coke and Alan Borg (review)

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 46, Number 1, Autumn 2013
pp. 71-73 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0047

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From 1661 to 1859, Vauxhall was synonymous with pleasure in the collective consciousness of London and England. As the site and cause of that pleasure, the gardens of Vauxhall have long disappeared or metamorphosed into the collected and exhibited items of the Victoria and Albert Museum, but from time to time art historians have tantalizingly brought them back to life. After an interval of more than fifty years since the last such study, this is what Messrs. Coke and Borg have ably done.

For the first seventy years or so, the gardens at Vauxhall were known as the spring gardens and their pleasure was often associated with seasonal sordidness. For gentlefolk like John Evelyn, whose record of a visit there in a diary entry of July 2, 1661, commenced the formal history of the place, it was a pleasant rural tavern retreat away from metropolitan bustle, convenient for “seeing and being seen” and for “gentle exercise and refreshment.” But for many others, it was legendary as a haunt of prostitutes and their unsavory and unruly clients. In a 1712 issue of the Spectator, even Addison included a titillating encounter of his fictional character Sir Roger de Coverley with a masked female who familiarly tapped on his shoulder and salaciously invited him to a drink of mead with her.

Jonathan Tyers, who leased Vauxhall in 1729, transformed it in the early 1730s into an enclosed outdoor venue for popular and wholesome mass amusement after dark in the summer. Contemporaries of Tyers, such as Henry Fielding, lionized him as a person who exemplified the motif “that a truly elegant Taste is generally accompanied with an Excellency of Heart.” Messrs. Coke and Borg have analogously eulogized him as someone who was inspired by the Arcadian idylls of Milton’s L’Allegro, staging “entertainments that would act as ‘eloquent and gracefull inticements to the love and practice of justice, temperance and fortitude, instructing and bettering the nation at all opportunities.’” Tyers may indeed have been an appreciative reader of great literature, but his phenomenal success at Vauxhall, along with that of his competitors at Ranelagh and Marylebone, seems to have resulted from mixing the old catering of food and drink with the new attractions of architecture, painting, sculpture, dance, and music.

By prompting visitors “to want what they didn’t actually need” or “well-being” rather than “merely being,” Tyers first made Vauxhall into a fable. On the opening night, for example, the experience of visitors began with a boat trip down the Thames. Once inside the artificially lit garden compound, they participated in the masquerade dance of the ridotto or were entertained along the geometrically organized broad walks, in the central grove, or in the individual supper boxes by food and drink, artworks, the music of Handel and others, shows, and throngs of people from all classes in their Sunday best. After the death of Tyers in 1767, other attractions were added, such as the first display of fireworks in 1783, the first performance of the rope dancer Madame Saqui in 1813, and the first balloon flight in 1826, and, finally, in 1822, Vauxhall was dignified with the honorific designation of Royal Gardens. Public interest, however, eventually waned; when it finally closed down in 1859, the cause was much more than the proverbial rains of London.

As veteran museum professionals, Messrs. Coke and Borg have brought additional expertise to their historical account, providing in-depth information about intricate aspects of specific situations. Discussing the full-length, life-sized sculpture of Handel, one of the main art objects at Vauxhall, for instance, they expand their reach to the artist Louis François Roubiliac, the marble medium, the English rococo style, Tyers’s concern with the artistic credibility of the gardens and with his own reputation as a serious patron of the visual arts and of music, and Handel’s possible self-promotion. Nor do they forget the often overlooked purpose of the statue’s initial setting under a simple, tall, open arch adjacent to the Grand South Walk, facing north toward the Orchestra—the use of the dramatic potential of natural lighting just before dark.

Vauxhall is reminiscent of other pleasure places close to...

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