One of my favorite things about doing research is when I happen upon a book on a topic in my area of interest of which I was previously unaware. I got a real treat a few weeks ago when I found a book on pleasure gardens which was published a couple of years ago. The Pleasure Garden, from Vauxhall to Coney Island was published in 2013. It is a set of essays on several aspects of the origins and development of the pleasure garden, edited by Jonathan Conlin.
Some of the highlights in the history of pleasure gardens . . .
The Pleasure Garden, from Vauxhall to Coney Island is comprised of nine essays. Each one is by a noted authority in their field and they cover a broad spectrum of topics related to pleasure gardens, from those in London to the Continent to America. The first few essays focus on different aspects of the London pleasure gardens, particularly Vauxhall. These include comparisons with large private gardens, contrasts between the rural atmosphere of the gardens and the urban city which surrounded them, the importance of musical performances in the gardens, and the patriotic paintings which were on display for the entertainment of garden visitors. Authors of other essays have provided details about the enormous influence of Vauxhall Gardens around the world. Nearly any visitor to London went to Vauxhall, and before the eighteenth century was out, the concept of the pleasure garden was exported to many of the major cities on the Continent, and to America. Each of those pleasure gardens developed their own entertainments over time, but they all drew their origins from London’s pleasure gardens. In fact, I discovered that "Vauxhall" was the generic term used around the world for pleasure gardens.
It was quite surprising to learn that pleasure gardens originated in the 1630s, and that they originated in London. So many entertainments which became popular in England were Continental imports, but not the pleasure gardens. The very first of London’s pleasure gardens was called Spring Gardens, where there was nothing more on offer than bowls. Though we might not think it today, from the beginning, the primary attraction to city dwellers of these "gardens" was the sense of the rural countryside they were able to enjoy inside the city limits. Remarkably, despite the increasingly sophisticated decor and entertainments which were provided at all of the English pleasure gardens over the next two centuries and more, most visitors were attracted by the "rural" atmosphere they imagined they experienced there.
Though visitors were charmed by the idea of rural recreation in the pleasure gardens, they would have been bored to tears in a simple country field. Those who operated the pleasure gardens were aware of this attitude and over the years, they would regularly upgrade their facilities to draw ever more visitors while striving to maintain a rural feeling. For Vauxhall Gardens in London, the fact that it was most readily accessibly via the Thames River was an added benefit, since the trip enhanced the sense of leaving the congestion of the urban metropolis far behind, for a charming rural playground. It was possible to reach Vauxhall via carriage, but it seems that many people made it a point to come by water to add to the enjoyment of their visit to the gardens.
Architectural elements were an important feature of these pleasure gardens, and, as the eighteenth century progressed, they became increasingly exotic. Elements of Chinese, Indian, Turkish and other foreign styles of architecture were to be seen in many pleasure gardens, not only in London, but across England. Some of the pleasure garden buildings were decorated with paintings which displayed bucolic country scenes. However, there were also some paintings of important battle scenes and other events which inspired a sense of patriotism in garden visitors. Even the War of Jenkins’s Ear was commemorated in a painting displayed at Vauxhall Gardens in the early eighteenth century. By the mid-eighteenth century, most cities of any size around Britain had at least one pleasure garden. Some of the larger cities had more than one. Though the exotic architecture seen in the London pleasure gardens was the most elegant and sophisticated, similar, if less complex, architectural elements could be found ornamenting the pleasure gardens in the provinces.
The London pleasure gardens, in particular, also vied with one another to offer increasingly attractive musical entertainments which would bring the best of society to their gardens. I was surprised to learn that Vauxhall Gardens resisted offering vocal musical entertainments until all of the other London gardens had done so. The owner felt that singers would distract his visitors and preferred to offer only instrumental music, which would serve as background for their promenades though the gardens. But he eventually added vocalists to the Vauxhall programs since the other pleasure gardens in London were also regularly featuring singers. By the nineteenth century, music was a standard feature at all of the London pleasure gardens, as well as those in the provinces. This was a boon to many musicians and vocalists, who could count on extra income by playing the pleasure gardens after other venues were closed for the season. Something which may surprise a number of Regency romance authors, the pleasure gardens were only open from May to September. They were a place of recreation only from late spring to early autumn. Pleasure gardens were actually closed for the early part of the London season and were closed during the winter months.
Like theatre boxes, it was also possible to buy a season ticket to the London pleasure gardens. Since the price of admission to Vauxhall Gardens, for one person, for a single evening, during the Regency, was four shillings, those who visited the pleasure gardens regularly would have found season tickets both convenient and cost-effective. These season tickets did not come in the form of paper. Rather, they were metal medallions on which would be depicted some classical country scene in keeping with the decor of the garden to which they provided admittance. Another curious fact which came to light about the London pleasure gardens was that servants in livery were not admitted into the gardens, except on very rare occasions. The lower classes were not barred from the gardens, per se, but rather, there was a dress code of sorts which required formal dress. Anyone who was not properly dressed would be turned away at the entrance to the gardens. This had the effect of keeping the worst of the riff raff out of the gardens, but also made it quite expensive for honest members of the lower classes to visit the gardens. Not only must they have the price of admission, but they must also be dressed well enough to be allowed in. This dress code had the added advantage of keeping down the number of pick-pockets and prostitutes who plied their trades in the gardens. They, too, would have to be very well dressed to get past the garden staff who manned the entrances. Staff who would be on the look-out for them, under orders from management.
There is also a line of information in this book for those interested in the development of pleasure gardens in other countries. Though London’s Vauxhall Gardens seems to have been the primary model for most of those other pleasure gardens, over time each garden was changed by its proprietor to reflect the tastes of their local patrons. In fact, as one can see in the history of the gardens traced in this book, Vauxhall Gardens is the progenitor of the amusement park which became popular in the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Though the original Vauxhall Gardens closed for good in 1859, its spirit still lives on in the many amusement parks around the world.
Though The Pleasure Garden, from Vauxhall to Coney Island is not restricted to the history of pleasure gardens only in England or only during the Regency, it is still a useful resource for Regency authors who want to set scenes in those place of recreation. Knowing the history of the pleasure gardens provides the information an author needs to write a scene between an older and younger character, in which the elder person tells stories about what Vauxhall or Ranelagh Gardens were like in her day. This book is also a valuable resource for Regency authors because it contains a number of images of contemporary scenes and plans of several pleasure gardens. Most of the images include visitors strolling through the gardens, which helps give a sense of scale to the spaces. Such visual information can be very useful when describing a scene in one of the gardens. Readers of Regency romances who are interested in the pleasure gardens of London and beyond will also enjoy this book.