Cultural life in London in the eighteenth century was exciting and sophisticated, observes the Countess du Ruel . Cultural life today would benefit from a few of the entertainments on offer then, mainly Vauxhall Gardens. The most famous pleasure gardens in Europe were located on an 11-acre woodland site south of the Thames in today’s unprepossessing Vauxhall. These gardens were a showcase for art and civilization in the 1750s.

Pleasure gardens at that time in Europe were the domain of royal courts and noble houses. Vauxhall was democratic and open to anyone who could pay a shilling for admittance. Tradesmen enjoyed the gardens just as much as dukes and nobles.

Open each evening from May to September, Vauxhall’s main attraction was the opportunity to stroll in the evenings and listen to open air music. Vauxhall’s octagonal “temple” in rococo style was basically England’s first bandstand. There was space for a full orchestra and a balcony for singers.

The Gardens attracted 100,000 visitors per season. The only thing we have approaching this today is the Proms, or you might say that music festivals are a modern version, only they lack the elegance of the Vauxhall Gardens. The pleasure gardens were also a public art gallery, where genre painting depicting scenes of everyday life by artists such as William Hogarth were on display.

These genre paintings were on rollers, so that they could create partitions between “supper boxes,” which lined colonnades and piazzas. Vauxhall’s own caterers set up what were, in effect, London’s first restaurants. At that time dining out in public was unheard of. Cold roast chicken and paper-thin slices of ham became trademark Vauxhall Garden dishes. Lobsters, anchovies and pigeon were favourite dishes, followed by custards, cheesecakes. Meals went on until morning.

The gardens were lit by lamps hanging in trees which were lighted at 9 pm. This “wilderness of lamps” was described by William Wordsworth. Keats penned a sonnet, “To a Lady Seen for a Few Moments at Vauxhall.” Haydn declared that Vauxhall had no rival anywhere in the world when he visited it in 1792.

Fireworks were introduced in 1873 and became an instant hit. In 1815 following the victory at the Battle of Waterloo, spectacular fireworks were featured as a celebration. Hot air balloon rides became enormously popular after 1820.

The gardens closed in 1859 due to the suburban spread of Vauxhall. The noise and crowds were objected to by local residents.

What a pity we don’t have the likes of Vauxhall Gardens today. I’d be there every night!

— Countess du Ruel


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