London's Foundling Museum explores the history of Vauxhall Gardens
To truly understand the place that Vauxhall Gardens held in Georgian London, you shouldn’t think of it less in terms of bandstands, pretty tree-lined avenues and flower-beds. Instead – we learn from a fascinating exhibition newly opened at London’s Foundling Museum – we should think of it in terms of the hold Hollywood had on society in the 1920s and ‘30s. It was all about aspiration, escapism and emulation of the fashionable – with a frisson of the forbidden thrown in as people found themselves mingling outside, after dark, at a time when most sensible Londoners would stay safely locked inside.
The concept was dreamed up by a young tradesman from Bermondsey, Jonathan Tyers, who took over the lease of the existing gardens in 1729. He laid out the avenues, built eccentric buildings in a mixture of Gothic and classical styles, set up colonnades and statues, displayed paintings, and hired musicians and exotically dressed waiters. To visitors more accustomed to the stench and squalor of the city, it was a cross between a fairy-tale idyll and an imagined aristocratic playground. Tyers hoped it would be improving for its visitors to be connected with art and nature (and, of course, that it would prove a commercial success – which it did). It was an sensory feast: at dusk thousands of oil lamps burst into life with dramatic speed - 'dissolved in pleasure' is how Henry Fielding described feeling on witnessing the spectacle. The twilight gardens did then attract a less-respectable sort, though this in itself was not an unimportant attraction for some it seems.
But what, you may well be asking, did a commercial pleasure gardens, south west of central London, have to do with a benevolent institution caring for abandoned children, north east of it? Or for that matter, why does it concern Gramophone today?
One exhibit on display hints at a link: a 1750s porcelain punch bowl, bearing images of both Vauxhall and the Foundling Museum. (Another, coincidental but poignant, link is found in the same cabinet. Desperate mothers taking their babies to the Foundling Hospital would leave a unique object behind, to help identify their child should they ever be in a position to be reunited with them: one mother left a season token to the Gardens.)
But more important, two towering cultural figures of their day were heavily involved in both projects: the painter William Hogarth, and Handel. The composer's support of the Foundling Hospital through benefit concerts is well known, helping both the finances directly, and through raising its reputation as a destination for the cultural – and, ideally, wealthy – connoisseur. But Handel was equally as involved south of the river at Vauxhall. By the 1730s he was directing the music at the Gardens, much of which was his own, and his name doubtless added a certain lustre to the marketing material. Handel was a shrewd businessman, and knew that 100,000 visitors a season hearing back-to-back Handel would do his reputation no harm at all. It was the first mass audience for music, and so associated with Vauxhall did Handel become that a full length marble sculpture of the composer - now at the V&A Museum - was set up near the bandstand, becoming, as the exhibition puts it, the garden’s 'presiding deity'.
Music was integral to the experience at Vauxhall. Visitors would stroll around to the instrumental performances, or stand and watch singers: you could listen how and when you wanted, the music removed from the more formal settings of the concert hall (something which even today programmers are still striving to achieve through late-night or nightclub style events). It was a good place for composers to try out new pieces: a failure went unnoticed while a success would lead to healthy sales. Among the scores on show are ones boasting of having been performed at Vauxhall: it clearly added a marketable kudos. Others scores include Handel’s only piece of orchestral music written specifically for the Gardens, plus music by Arne, Thomas Gladwin and William Boyce. You can also see Gainsborough's portrait of JC Bach, while the Gardens themselves are captured in plentiful prints and paintings, including one by Canaletto.
In 1859 the Gardens, by now out of fashion, closed: the exhibition includes two photographs from this time, both exuding a melancholy, dated air far removed from the grandeur of Vauxhall’s heyday. The land was redeveloped for housing, though even then the legacy lingered on: in an estate built in the 1930s, each block was given the name of a singer, artist or character associated with the Gardens. Bombing and slum clearance exposed part of the area once again in the Second World War, and a recently redeveloped urban park complete with a city farm now bears its illustrious predecessor's name. But it’s north of the river at the Foundling Museum where you’ll really be able to grasp what Vauxhall meant to a Georgian Londoner.
The Triumph of Pleasure: Vauxhall Gardens 1729-1786 is at the Foundling Museum, 20 Brunswick Square, London WC1 until September 9 - more information
Click images to enlarge
Martin Cullingford is editor of Gramophone - brought up in Britten country on the Suffolk coast, when not practising the guitar he can often be found enjoying Evensong.