The Vauxhall Gardens were the leading venue for public entertainment in London in the 18th century.
As celebrities and middling sorts mingled together under the leafy avenues of Jonathan Tyers’ creation, they indulged in the most ambitious exercise in mass entertainment of their time.
Tyers’ moralising vision
In the 17th century, Kennington was an area of rural pastureland, market gardens and orchards, dotted with pockets of glass and ceramic production. For those in central London, it was an escape to the countryside. The New Spring Gardens were established here in 1661.
The golden age for this rural Kennington plot began with Jonathan Tyers, who signed a 30 year lease in 1728. He saw a gap in the market for London entertainment, and set out to create a wonderland of delights on a scale never attempted before.
Tyers was determined that his gardens would improve the morality of his visitors. The New Spring Gardens had long been associated with prostitution and general depravity. Tyers sought to create ‘innocent and elegant’ entertainment, which Londoners of all classes would enjoy with their families.
In 1732 a ball was held, attended by Frederick, Prince of Wales. It was intended to condemn the licentious behaviour and decadence which prevailed in public places in London.
Tyers warned his guests of their sin by creating a centrepiece display of five tableaux: ‘The House of Ambition’, ‘The House of Avarice’, ‘The House of Bacchus’, ‘The House of Lust’ and ‘The Palace of Pleasure’. His London audience, many of whom regularly indulged in such depravity, were unimpressed with being lectured to.
During this early struggle, Tyers was reported to have met with his friend, the artist William Hogarth. Hogarth was in the midst of producing his ‘modern moral’ paintings, which used humour and satire to teach lessons about modern depravity.
He advised Tyers to take the same approach. From then on, Tyers’ attempt to sanitise London entertainment was to encourage civilised amusements, rather than befoul popular indulgences.
A temple of the muses
Tyers removed the wild and unruly thickets of woodland which covered the park, hitherto used to conceal untoward activity. Instead, he built a large Roman-style piazza, surrounded with tree-lined avenues and neo-classical colonnades. Here, guests could indulge in polite conversation and enjoy refreshments.
The gardens were family friendly – although Tyers left some areas unlit to allow for salacious business to be conducted.
The gardens were normally open from 5 or 6pm, closing when the last visitors left, which could be well into the following morning. The season lasted from early May until late August, depending on the weather, and opening days were announced in the press.
The attractions which developed on this 11-acre site were so widely celebrated that gardens in France became known as ‘les Wauxhalls’. Tyers was an innovator in public entertainment, running an operation with mass catering, outdoor lighting, advertising and impressive logistical capability.
Originally the gardens were accessed by boat, but the opening of the Westminster Bridge in the 1740s, and later the Vauxhall Bridge in the 1810s, made the attraction more accessible – albeit without the early romance of a candlelit river crossing.
The crowds were drawn in by tightrope walkers, hot-air balloon ascents, concerts and fireworks. James Boswell wrote:
‘Vauxhall Gardens is peculiarly adapted to the taste of the English nation; there being a mixture of curious show — gay exhibition, music, vocal and instrumental, not too refined for the general ear — for all of which only a shilling is paid; and, though last, not least, good eating and drinking for those who choose to purchase that regale.’
In 1749, a preview rehearsal for Handel’s ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’ attracted over 12,000, and in 1768, a fancy-dress party hosted 61,000 guests. In 1817, the Battle of Waterloo was re-enacted, with 1,000 soldiers participating.
As the gardens developed in popularity, permanent structures were built. There was the rococo ‘Turkish tent’, supper boxes, a music room, a Gothic orchestra for fifty musicians, several chinoiserie structures and a statue by Roubiliac depicting Handel, which was later moved to Westminster Abbey.
The main walks were lit by thousands of lamps, The ‘dark walks’ or ‘close walks’ were famed as a place for amorous adventures, as revellers would lose themselves in the darkness. An account from 1760 described the such dalliance:
‘The ladies that have an inclination to be private, take delight in the close walks of Spring-Gardens, where both sexes meet, and mutually serve one another as guides to lose their way; and the windings and turnings in the little wildernesses are so intricate, that the most experienced mothers have often lost themselves in looking for their daughters’
The cabinets of curiosity, fairs, puppets, taverns, ballad-singers and menageries attracted such an array of visitors that the gardens required a primitive version of London’s early police force.
A spectacle of celebrity
One of the most novel concepts to 18th century Londoners was the egalitarian nature of the gardens. Whilst almost everything else in society was defined by rank, Tyers would entertain anyone who could pay one shilling. Royalty mixed with the middling sorts, creating spectacles of the visitors themselves.
David Blayney Brown described the glitterati:
‘Royalty came regularly. Canaletto painted it, Casanova loitered under the trees, Leopold Mozart was astonished by the dazzling lights.’
For the first time, London’s fashionable social centre was totally disassociated from the royal court. George II even had to borrow equipment from Tyers to celebrate his 1743 victory at the Battle of Dettingen.
After the death of Tyers in 1767, management of the gardens passed through a number of hands. Although none of the managers had the same innovative pizazz of Vauxhall’s first visionary, the Victorians were delighted with firework and ballooning displays.
The gardens closed in 1859, when developers bought the land to build 300 new houses