We now know what early 19th century fireworks looked like…but what about the illuminations?
We did not go till nine and then were in very good time for the Fire-Works which were really beautiful and surpassing my expectations the illuminations too were very pretty.
(See Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 19th June, 1799)
Illuminations were often used in conjunction with fireworks, and were static structures lit by hundreds of small glass lamps fuelled with oil. The structures were often temporary things, but the illuminations (the small glass oil lamps) could also be affixed to “illuminate” more solid structures, as in this picture below by Rowlandson from Ackermann’s The Microcosm of London, showing the illuminated bandstand at Vauxhall Gardens( Do click on it to enlarge it to see the beautiful detail,and the effect of the individual lamps)
The term could also refer to the strings of lamps illuminating the walks of the pleasure gardens as was the case at many of the gardens in England throughout the 18th century and up to the middle of the 19th century.
At a time when the brightness of electric light was unknown and candles used en masse was terrifically and prohibitively expensive, the sight of coloured lights illuminating the gardens at night, among the trees, must have been breath-taking.
An Irish gentlemen visiting Vauxhall Gardens in 1752, whose name is not recorded, wrote about the astonishing effect of the illuminations:
The garden strikes the eye prodigiously; it is set with many rows of tall trees, kept in excellent order, among which are placed an incredible number of globe lamps, by which it is illuminated, and when they are lighted the sound of the music ravishing the ear, added to the great resort of company so well dressed and walking about, would almost make one believe he was in the Elysian fields.
The method of lighting the lamps at Vauxhall was very dramatic. During supper 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, instantaneously over a thousand oil lamps were illuminated, bathing the gardens in a warm light that would have been visible for miles around.
These illustration from the Duke of Richmond’s firework display also show examples of illuminations:
Some illuminations were rather more elaborate than others.
This one designed by the architect, Robert Adam for King George III not only included 4,000 individual oil lamps but also two large transparencies pictures painted on gauze and lit from behind to produce a luminous effect:
This design is the more elaborate of the two proposals submitted by Adam for a temporary structure to be erected in the garden of Buckingham House in June 1763 at the time of the celebrations to mark the start of royal occupation of the house, purchased in the previous year. In the event Adam’s other design, for a much simpler structure, was used. A detailed description of the party, which took place at night and employed 4,000 lamps, is included in the Gentleman’s Magazine. It was arranged by Queen Charlotte as a surprise for the King, at the time of his twenty-fifth birthday. Adam also made perspective views of both versions of the screen, which clarify the importance of the ‘transparencies’ (large back-lit pictures, within the main architectural features) in the design. The subject of the transparencies alluded to the King’s role as peace-maker – following the signing of the Treaty of Paris and the end of the Seven Years War in the same year. This style of decoration had been popular on the continent for many years: in France, Rome and also in Mecklenburg, where a small-scale ‘illumination’ had been staged to celebrate the forthcoming marriage of the future Queen Charlotte in 1761. It appears that some of the materials used in Adam’s 1763 screen were reused by Chambers in 1768, for the pavilion erected in Richmond at the time of the visit of the King’s brother-in-law, Christian VII of Denmark.
(see George III and Queen Charlotte: Patronage Collecting and Court Taste edited by Jane Roberts).
Sadly we have no record of the type of illuminations which were in operation at the Sydney Gardens but we can be assured that because of their rarity and very special effect in a world where the light from a few wax candles was thought of as miraculous, Jane Austen was quite right to be impressed.
And that concludes this series of posts on Jane Austen in Bath. I do hope you have enjoyed our time travelling to this particular part of Jane Austen’s past.