'THE DELIGHT OF ALL PERSONS OF REPUTATION AND TASTE'
Vauxhall Gardens 1661-1859
 

Samuel Pepys records two dozen separate visits to the New Spring Gardens, Vaux-hall in his diary, the first on 29th May 1662, and it is from Pepys that we learn that Restoration Vauxhall was a relatively simple affair, little more than a popular country ale-house with a garden, approached by boat across the river Thames. It had walks, flowerbeds and arbours; the refreshments were basic and were often supplemented by visitors' own picnics, and the entertainments, such as they were, appear to have been generated by freelance performers or by the visitors themselves. It was a place where a citizen could, with all decorum, take his wife and young servants or children, and enjoy an evening out with food, drink and informal entertainment in the setting of a large garden, an activity previously the privilege of royalty, courtiers and aristocrats. However, its main attraction was that it was a place where the sexes could meet freely, without many of the constraints that normally circumscribed the tricky process of socialising between young men and young women in polite society.

The Orchestra with parties at supper 1744

The popularity of the gardens and their informality made them an ideal place of business for the working girls of London. The shameless familiarity of the native prostitutes upset Sir Roger de Coverley in Joseph Addison's famous article in The Spectator, No 383, of Tuesday 20th May 1712; in the midst of pleasant musings brought on by the moonlight and the song of the nightingales, he was rudely tapped on the shoulder by a masked woman who asked him to join her in a bottle of mead. He told her "She was a wanton Baggage, and bid her go about her Business." Having concluded their walk with a glass of Burton ale and a slice of hung beef, Sir Roger and Mr. Spectator left the garden, Sir Roger commenting to the Mistress of the House that he would be a better customer of her garden "if there were more Nightingales, and fewer Strumpets."
 
Vauxhall Gardens ran for two centuries, through the reigns of ten monarchs, until its final and rather pathetic demise in 1859. During that time, Vauxhall had a succession of owners and managers, but by far the greatest was a remarkable young entrepreneur and developer called Jonathan Tyers. Tyers came from a family of Bermondsey fellmongers, dealers in skins and hides, part of the booming leather industry. He was a very shrewd businessman, with a deep understanding of advertising techniques, and a talent for re-inventing himself as a gentleman landowner, a wit, an urbane host, and a munificent patron of the arts.
 
It was Tyers's ownership, from 1729 until his death in 1767, that saw the height of Vauxhall's popularity amongst the fashionable elite, and the greatest quality of the music and artworks. In Tyers's time, the clientèle regularly included the Prince of Wales (ground landlord of the site) royal dukes, aristocrats and wealthy landowners and merchants. One of the great attractions of the gardens was that anybody who could afford the one shilling admission could mix with such people on an equal footing.
 
Because of this, it is difficult to think of Vauxhall Gardens merely as a commercial venture, but that is exactly what it was. For Tyers's big launch party, a Ridotto al Fresco on 7th June 1732, visitors paid one guinea each for tickets - a huge sum, and one that was intended to limit access to only the wealthiest patrons. Following the success of this event, Tyers introduced a much more affordable one shilling admission for ordinary visitors, that stayed unchanged for sixty years.
 
For those who wished to visit the gardens more regularly, he offered a one guinea season ticket. These tickets, made of silver, are one of the most attractive and evocative survivals of the gardens. There are around twenty different patterns surviving, dating between 1737 and the late 1750s. They depict scenes and figures from classical mythology on one side, with the subscriber's name engraved on the reverse. On top of the cost of the ticket, visitors to the gardens paid for their refreshments, but all the entertainments, including the music, singing, and artworks were provided free.
 
In the 1740s, the Vauxhall evening began at 7 p.m., with parties arriving at the Thames side, normally at Whitehall or Westminster Stairs, where a boat could be hired to ferry them up river to Vauxhall Stairs, on the Surrey bank, just south of Lambeth Palace. This river crossing was an integral part of the evening, as it provided an exciting taste of danger and adventure before the thrills of Vauxhall itself.
 
After the river-crossing, parties arrived at Vauxhall Stairs, to walk the last few yards to the entrance. Having paid a shilling, or shown season tickets, visitors enter the Grove, the central area of the gardens, surrounded by the supper boxes, with the orchestra building in the centre. The first sight to be seen was the great marble statue of the composer Handel, by Louis François Roubiliac (1738). (1)This extraordinarily modern work of art was amongst the first to have been commissioned by Jonathan Tyers, and confirmed him as a serious patron of the arts and music lover.
 
Handel was still very much alive at the time, in his early fifties. This makes the sculpture unique in Europe as a life-sized statue of a living commoner who was neither a soldier nor a statesman. It is also unique in the way the sitter is presented, not just in everyday dress, but totally relaxed, in his dressing-gown and slippers, and without his wig, as he might have been seen by his closest friends at home in his study.

The Grand South Walk with Handel Statue 1744

Admiration of the Handel statue is soon overtaken by the Vauxhall band striking up in the Orchestra building, 'where the first performers in London execute the favorit airs of this nation' (2), playing not only the popular tunes and songs of the day, but also giving performances of new pieces by major composers, especially Handel and his British contemporaries, Arne and Boyce.
 
The intervals between the music gave an opportunity to look around the rest of the gardens, and to gaze at the 'company' as they promenade in their fine costumes. Some walk in the garden, some sit at tables around the orchestra, and others gather in the supper-boxes (in three straight rows around the rectangular 'Grove', of which the proprietor's house and a special pavilion for the Prince of Wales formed the fourth side). Each of the fifty or so boxes was large enough to entertain a party of ten or twelve people to supper, and each was decorated with a large painting.
 
This remarkable and charming series of fifty-three paintings, designed by Francis Hayman and his friends at the Saint Martin's Lane Academy, and painted by the staff and students, represents a real turning-point in English art, from the rather heavy and stylised baroque of earlier years to the lightness and informality of the rococo. Eighteen of the paintings were published as engravings, which became enormously popular. These engravings show us the three general subjects of the paintings - children's games, adult pastimes and the contemporary theatre. In view of their vulnerability to damage, both from the roistering behaviour of visitors and from the rigors of mishandling, poor storage and the weather over the one hundred years that most of them adorned the gardens, it is almost miraculous that fourteen of the original paintings have survived.

The Company with the Venetian Tent 1751

During the promenade around the gardens, visitors would stray beyond the Grove, down the 300 yards of the Grand Walk to the golden statue of Aurora, or to the 'Rural Downs', where a life-sized lead statue of Milton was set amongst the shrubs and trees. After an hour or so, visitors returned to the Grove up the overgrown and romantic Druids Walk in time for supper. All these walks formed a grid pattern around the rectangles of wooded wildernesses, in which the saplings seen by John Evelyn in 1661 had matured into stately trees, mostly elm, lime and sycamore.
 
The Vauxhall supper usually took place at around 9 o'clock, as dusk fell:

The chief part of the company having seated themselves in the arbours, five hundred separate suppers are served in an instant . . . the price of a bottle of French claret is 5s., of one cold chicken 2s.6d., a quart of cyder 1s., a quart of small beer 4d. a slice of bread 2d. of cheese 4d., and everything else in proportion, which raises an elegant collation to a high rate. (3)

The most famous item on the menu was the legendary Vauxhall ham, cut so thin that you could read a newspaper through it. Besides cold meats, salad, and cheese, the Vauxhall menu also included custards, tarts, cheesecakes and other puddings, mainly to appeal to the younger generation.
 
During supper, one of the great special effects of Vauxhall was enacted. As night fell a whistle was blown as a signal to a number of servants placed in strategic parts of the garden. Each servant touched a match to pre-installed fuses, and, 'in an instant', over a thousand oil lamps were illuminated, bathing the gardens in a warm light that would have been visible for miles around. In the days before electric light, the effect was sensational, and was a constant attraction at the gardens.
 
At the front of the Pavilion built for the Prince of Wales, on the west side of the Grove, was an open portico, and visitors to the gardens in 1745 would have seen here a new group of four large paintings of scenes from the plays of Shakespeare, all painted by Francis Hayman. Unlike his supper-box pictures, the Shakespearean scenes were serious works of art, and were seen as such by the public and by critics, both at the time and much later on. Tragically, none of these paintings survive.
 
By the mid 18th century, semi-circular 'piazzas' had been opened up in the north and south ranges of boxes. The Handel statue was standing out in the open, in the middle of the southern piazza, and there was a substantial new building behind the northern range of supper boxes. This was the Rotunda, built by Tyers as a concert room during wet weather, and as a riposte to the rival gardens opened a few years before at Ranelagh, adjacent to the Chelsea Hospital, whose central feature was a great Rotunda (opened 1742). Of all the buildings at Vauxhall, the Rotunda contained the most authentic rococo decoration, closely related to continental models.
 
A new room, the exotically decorated 'Pillared Saloon' was soon added to the eastern flank of the Rotunda, and it is here that we find the last, and most ambitious of Francis Hayman's paintings for Jonathan Tyers. Painted in the early 1760s to celebrate England's victories in the Seven-Years War, the four huge canvases, each 12 by 15 feet, depicted episodes from the war, and patriotic allegories celebrating our heroic military leaders. Hayman's military paintings too have disappeared, except for two oil sketches, and an engraving. However, it is clear from the evidence that without Vauxhall Gardens, Jonathan Tyers and Francis Hayman, the direction of British art from the 1740s onwards would have been very different.
 
Vauxhall was also famous for its music. The Vauxhall song, which became a recognisable type in the second half of the 18th century, was the first truly popular music in this country. It was the first music to have a real mass audience (of over a hundred thousand each season) drawn from all sectors of society, and from all parts of Britain and overseas. And the singers became huge stars - people like Thomas Lowe and Cecilia Arne in the early years, and Joseph Vernon, Charles Dignum, and Mrs. Weichsell, later on. Some of the song titles will still be familiar to modern audiences - Nymphs and Shepherds, Black-Eyed Susan, Sally in our Alley, Delia, and the Dashing White Sergeant, for example, or the hugely successful Lass of Richmond Hill, written by the prolific James Hook amongst many songs for Vauxhall.
 
The original orchestra building was replaced in 1758 by a theatrical neo-gothic structure, which signalled the end of the rococo at the gardens. After this, no significant permanent additions were made to the garden buildings until well into the 19th century, although one project that was planned for the following year does help us to realise the significance of Vauxhall as a breeding-ground for new styles and fashions, as well as the depth of Tyers's insight, perception and commitment. The young Robert Adam, writing to his brother James, mentions that:

I am now scheming another thing, which is a temple of Venus for Vauxhall which Mr. Tyers . . . proposes to lay out £5000 upon and is happy in my doing it. You shall hear more of this when I know of it myself; but you may easily judge that it is one of the most critical undertakings for a young beginner and requires more to be perfect than anything I know. For here the universe are judges, whereas in a private garden it is only the narrow public and clamour. (4)

'Chinese Temples' 1751

Following the death of Jonathan Tyers in 1767, Vauxhall was run by his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren until 1822. In this period there appears to have been little significant change in the way the gardens were run or in their layout. However, shortly after that, the gardens saw their two best ever years, with larger profits and more visitors than any previous year on record.
 
Vauxhall Gardens finally closed after the 'Last Night for Ever' on 25 July 1859. Many reasons are given for this. The proprietors at the time blamed the magistrates who continually banned their most popular attractions as either too dangerous, or too disruptive to the newly-respectable neighbourhood of Kennington. But other factors certainly played a part: Vauxhall Gardens itself had become run down and tawdry, and was considered old-fashioned; the railway, which ran past the main entrance, had made travel further afield much easier and cheaper; seaside towns, with their Vauxhall-like piers were becoming fashionable; and, finally, the site itself was too valuable as property, and the blandishments of developers eventually persuaded the proprietors to cut their losses and sell the lease.
 
Amongst the first buildings on the site was St Peter's Church, Kennington Lane, which is located roughly on the site of the Neptune Fountain at the end of the Grand Walk. The rest of the area was divided up into three hundred building plots, and Vauxhall Gardens disappeared, apparently for ever. In the Blitz, however, the site was cleared, and is now a park, with a city farm at one end, allowing us to see the extent of the original gardens. Vauxhall Gardens, and the surrounding streets, are now, 150 years too late, a conservation area.
 

FOOTNOTES:

(1)The statue is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and is on display in the new British Galleries alongside three supper-box paintings, and some topographical engravings of Vauxhall

(2) Jakob Friedrich, Baron von Bielfeld, Letters 1737 & '41, letter XXXVI, p.165. Trans W. Hooper, London, 1770, 4 vols.

(3) The Scots Magazine September 1739, p.409

(4) Robert Adam to James Adam, 11 December, 1758, quoted in John Fleming, Robert Adam and his Circle. London, 1962, p.368

© David Coke, March 2005

Vauxhall Gardens c.1747 (detail from John Rocque's map of London)

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VAUXHALL GARDENS 1661–1859