Andrea here, madly scribbling away on Wrexford & Sloane Book 8, which is due in mid-August. Yes, yes, I know, Book 7 isn’t out until the end of September, but deadlines are set WAY in advance of publication . . . and I need to switch on jet propulsion to get to the finish line on time. (Oh, wait, there was no jet propulsion in the Regency era! Do you think my editor will accept the excuse that steam engines are to blame for not huffing and puffing hard enough? Heh, heh.) (image courtesy of Yale British Art Center)
Getting back to the plot-in-progress, as the action was heating up, I needed somewhere a little different for a meeting of several conspirators. Neither a fancy Mayfair mansion nor a gritty slum was quite right. So I began perusing my historic map of London and the solution quickly jumped out at me . . .
The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens! As its names implies, it was not designed as a tranquil spot for the quiet contemplation. Instead it was loud, gaudy outdoor enclave that offered raucous evening entertainments to both the highest and lowest circles of society. Vauxhall was the most famous of the pleasure gardens in England, but the concept was popular throughout Britain. Let’s take a quick peek inside its gates to see what went on within the colorful pavilions and formal walkways and its famous Dark Walk . . . (Image: commons.wikimedia.org. Vauxhall Gardens by Samuel Wales)
The first mention of Vauxhall Gardens occurs around the 1660s, with records noting the existence of a pleasant planted space where the public could stroll without paying an entrance fee. The proprietor made money selling refreshments to the crowds. All that changed in 1729, when Jonathan Tyers took over ownership of the gardens. A savvy entrepreneur and entertainment empressario, Tyers also was a marketing genius and soon created an fantastical world unto itself.
Despite its pastoral name, Vauxhall Gardens was teeming with all sorts of entertainments—eating, drinking, dancing, bands of roving jugglers and acrobats to amuse the crowds. It also held spectacular fireworks extravaganzas, concerts, operas, illuminations and balloon ascents. (In 1817, it staged a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo with a cast of 1,000 soldiers!) (image courtesy of the Museum of London-watercolor by Thomas Rowlandson)
Anyone who could purchase a ticket was welcome to pass through its gates. The poor would scrouge up enough for a rare night of pleasure, but one of the reasons pleasure gardens became so popular in the Regency was that a rising middle class with money in their pocket wanted to have the chance to rub shoulders with the rich and enjoy the same fun as they did.
A big part of the attraction of Vauxhall was the fact that risqué behavior was de rigeuer. One was expected to drink too much, laugh too loud, and engage in naughty behavior—with the understanding that a blind eye was turned on what happened within its leafy confines.
I learned a lot about Vauxhall Gardens by studying the prints and drawings of Thomas Rowlandson, one of the most famous satirical artists of the era who clearly spent a great deal of time there partaking of the myriad pleasure. His casual sketches capture the spirit of revelry, and his more formal watercolors show the aristocracy at play. One of them shows a Who’s Who of late Georgian Society enjoying a night out on the Town. Standing in front of the sumptuous dining pavilions—which served shaved ham and arrack punch to those who could pay for such pleasure—is the Duchess of Devonshire, her sister Lady Bessborough, (in the blue and white gowns, slightly to the left of center)along with leading politicians and movers and shakers of Polite Society. (image courtesy of Yale British Art Center-watercolor by Thomas Rowlandson))
The exquisite pavilions themselves showcased the latest trends in architecture, allowing the patrons to stroll along the formal walkways and admire the grand designs. Art by William Hogarth graced the supper rooms, and the music played during the evenings was composed by some of the leading names in Europe. (During the mid-1700s, Handel was a de facto composer-in-residence.) So a visit was a cultural experience as well as an interlude for revelries.
But the real draw of Vauxhall Gardens were the lush formal gardens and narrow footpaths that wound through them. At night, the grounds were shrouded in shadows designed to hide all manner of sins and seductions. Some paths were had a bit of illumination from hanging lanterns. Bu the Dark Walk was famous for its impenetrable blackness. Respectable ladies were warned not to stray anywhere near it . . . (image courtesy of the Museum of London)
This passage from the Museum of London’s section on Vauxhall Gardens is a perfect summary of its irresistible allure: “It was a place where the glittering world of wealth, fashion and high culture showed off its seedy underside; where princes partied with prostitutes, and the middle classes went to be shocked and titillated by the excess on display. Simultaneously an art gallery, a restaurant, a brothel, a concert hall and a park, the pleasure garden was the place where Londoners confronted their very best, and very worst, selves.”
So what about you? Would you have liked to have spent an evening partying at Vauxhall Gardens? I’m trying to think of a modern day equivalent . . . Disney World? Coachella? A rock concert? What do you think—any suggestions?