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  • Vauxhall Gardens: A History
  • William Weber
David Coke and Alan Borg, Vauxhall Gardens: A History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2011). xiii + 473.

Vauxhall Gardens: A History has taken the study of this iconic entertainment venue to a new level. David Coke and Alan Borg have traced its history from previous uses of the land in South London, to the imaginative leadership of owner Jonathan Tyers, and finally to its closing in 1859. The extensive, well-produced illustrations alone are a remarkable resource, bringing the reader intimately close to the gardens, buildings, visitors, and other amusements. Close-ups of small parts of paintings give a vivid, telling picture of what life was like in the course of its history. The authors are art historians who have directed major institutions: David Coke was curator of the Gainsborough House Museum, and Alan Borg led the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Imperial War Museum. Their book discusses the artworks, gardens, music, and other entertainments, and the appendices list paintings, tickets, and ground plans.

The iconic name "Vauxhall" may have originated with the thirteenth-century Gascon merchant Falkes de Breauté, who built a manor house, Falkes Hall, in a district eventually called Fauxhall, Foxhall, or Vauxhall (a family named Vaux lived there in 1615). Gardens with food and entertainment began in the 1660s in a space called the Spring Gardens, becoming known chiefly for prostitutes and for Samuel Pepys's comments on his frequent visits there. Tyers, a leather-goods merchant based in Bermondsey, bought the Gardens in 1729 and expanded it with the high-minded purpose of establishing what he called "such diversions as may polish" (42). He developed a rich variety of sculptures, paintings, and other artworks with the help of William Hogarth, who held a golden pass allowing him to lead a coachful of visitors into the Gardens.

The book deepens our social understanding of Vauxhall considerably. Tyers brought an upper-class public to the venue, made up most numerously of fashion-minded men and women in their twenties and thirties, along with a substantial public from the middle classes. Though free, the Gardens offered expensive food at "supper boxes" (in effect, picnic tables), on each of which stood a painting of a social scene, a genre which Tyers helped define as high art. Coke and Borg stress how even though the venue became more respectable than before, the forested walkways were known as a good place for couples to tryst and for men to meet prostitutes. They portray Tyers as a brilliant businessman who developed a "proactive publicity programme, which successfully mythologized the gardens as heaven on earth" (176). A sense of decline began to be seen in the Gardens by the 1770s, as the middle-class public became central and as competition grew from Ranelagh for elite patronage. One would like to read more about the "constant opposition and criticism from the more conservative sections of the public, who saw the gardens as . . . a first step on the road to ruin" (179).

Music historians will benefit from the detailed discussion of the Rotonda (otherwise known as the Orchestra or Music Room), built in 1737, and the new "Gothic" (actually classical) Orchestra, put in its place in 1758. The simplicity of the original design became considerably more exotic, even Persian to some extent, by the 1790s. The book makes a major contribution in its demonstration of Tyers's [End Page 161] leadership in making musical performances central, focusing on singers beginning in 1745, and providing better performing locales in the late 1750s. That Vauxhall became the most important entertainment locale in London, particularly for foreigners, strengthens the importance assumed by British composers in that period. While the music performed is not discussed in great depth, the book outlines the succession of principal musicians involved and analyzes how the genre known as the "Vauxhall Song" evolved. More detailed work is needed with the newspaper listings in the database formed by Simon McVeigh, in order to analyze the combinations of genres on programs and the roles played by English opera, since a complete act was presented on many...


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