Tales from the Pleasure Garden: New book from Yale unearths Vauxhall Gardens

Vauxhall Gardens was the foremost pleasure garden of eighteenth and nineteenth-century London. The recently published Vauxhall Gardens: A History by David E. Coke and Alan Borg unearths this forgotten gem of London’s history,  revealing the teeming life, the spectacular art and the ever-present music of Vauxhall in fascinating detail.

Visiting Vauxhall today – with its urban sprawl of modern residential housing and office blocks – you would never know that it was once the site of a pleasure garden, and a leading venue for public entertainment and socialising. From their early beginnings in the Restoration until the final closure in Queen Victoria’s reign, Vauxhall Gardens developed from a rural tavern and place of assignation into a dream-world filled with visual arts and music, and finally into a commercial site of mass entertainment.

A social magnet for Londoners and tourists, the gardens also became a dynamic centre for the arts in Britain. Those who have read The Diary of Samuel Pepys will recall his descriptions of pleasant walks in the ‘Spring Gardens’. He noted that it was “cheap going thither, for a man may go to spend what he will… but to hear a nightingale and other birds, and here fiddles, and there a harp, and here a jews trump, and here laughing, and there fine people walking, is mighty divertising”. By the eighteenth century, when the Gardens were owned and managed by Jonathan Tyers – friend of Handel, Hogarth and Fielding – they were crucial to the cultural and fashionable life of the country, patronized by all levels of society, from royal dukes to penurious servants.

Vauxhall Gardens is the first book on the subject for over fifty years. As well as painting a vivid picture of a social hot-spot teaming with life, art, music and creativity, David E. Coke and Alan Borg help us understand why such a place was quite a rarity at the time of Samuel Pepys and his forebears. As Coke and Borg say, London at this time was “filthy, malodorous, violent, cacophonous and disorderly, the kind of place where an unwanted baby could be left to die on a street corner, or a bear be torn to bits by mastiffs simply for the amusement of the mob”. At a time when most of the London’s entertainments involved low thrills, cruelty or violence, a visit to Vauxhall Gardens was a rare occasion where one could enjoy a civilised, pleasurable environment.

Page spreads from 'Vauxhall Gardens'

Page spreads from ‘Vauxhall Gardens’

In the nineteenth century the Gardens remained a popular attraction, but faced increasing competition from new forms of entertainment such as the circus and the music hall and, with the arrival of the railway, the seaside. Nevertheless, they remained a prominent feature of London life right up to their closure in 1859, although there is evidence to suggest that by then the gardens had become somewhat passé. In Sketches by Boz, Charles Dickens wrote of a visit of the Gardens, noting that ‘if there had been any magic about it at all, [it] was now decidedly disenchanted’.

The Gardens feature in a number of other works of literature. They are the scene for a brief but pivotal turning point in the fortunes of anti-heroine Becky Sharp in William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century novel Vanity Fair, as well as a setting in his novel Pendennis. Thomas Hardy also has scenes set in the Gardens for his novel The Dynasts.

Vauxhall Gardens

Vauxhall Gardens

Borg and Coke’s historical exposition of the entire history of the foremost pleasure garden of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London makes a major contribution to the study of London entertainments, art, music, sculpture, class and ideology, and puts into a very particular context an unusual combination of subjects. Vauxhall Gardens reveals how Vauxhall linked high and popular culture in ways that look forward to the manner in which both art and entertainment have evolved in modern times.

“It feels as if every possible detail and document relating to the gardens have been scanned and assimilated. The result is the most complete reconstruction of this vital place there is likely to be.”—Rowan Moore, The Observer

Vauxhall Gardens is available now from Yale University Press.

Read a full review in the Guardian

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1 Comment

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