I have been bewitched by the idea of an 18th century pleasure garden for years. Too many years to comfortably remember, if I’m painfully honest. I’ve visited the only remaining one in England –the Sydney Gardens in Bath– where Jane Austen used to love to walk when she lived opposite them at Sydney Place. I’ve collected books on them, and visited exhibitions, notably The Muse’s Bower held at Gainsborough House Museum in Sudbury, in Suffolk in 1974…

and the Vauxhall Garden section of the Rococo Exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1984.

I’ve even visited the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, in an attempt to sample something of the atmosphere of the original. Vauxhall on the Surrey bank of the Thames was the first and the most famous of them all. In fact, the term “Vauxhall” became the generic term for a pleasure garden, and its successful format was copied all over England, Europe and even in early 19th century America. A new book, Vauxhall Gardens: A History has recently been published by Yale. It is published to  accompany an exhibition on the garden, which will open  later in the year at the Foundling Hospital Museum in Brunswick Square. Entitled The Triumph of Pleasure, I simply cannot wait to visit it ( and report back here).

This book is exactly what I have desired to find, after all these years. A comprehensive guide to EVERY aspect of the gardens: its history, the owners, The Tyers, shown below in a portrait by Francis Hayman…

The performers, especially the music and the musicians…

The art on show in the dining booths – it was the first contemporary art exhibit in the world open to the general ( paying) public…

The fashions worn there…

The way the gardens worked, the visitors..even details of the latrines or necessary houses……

it is all covered in exquisite detail, enough even to satisfy me. The book is co- written by David Coke past curator of Gainsborough’s House Museum (where he organised the Vauxhall Garden exhibit of 1978, and he also curated the Vauxhall Garden section of the Rococo exhibit at the Vand A in 1984), and by Dr Alan Borg.

They manage to capture the atmosphere of this magical place- lit by thousands of tiny coloured-glass oil lamps,where you could wander among the leafy groves, see and hear the latest art and music, and mingle with all classes of people who cloud afford to pay the entrance fee. The only exception being servants in livery- they were not admitted to teh gardens for as David Coke remarked to me yesterday,

Servants in livery were only excluded from Vauxhall because Tyers did not want any of his visitors to be seen as obviously subservient to any other visitor.  Of course, it also meant that wealthy visitors could not use their own servants to serve them supper, and had to use the Vauxhall waiters, but I’m sure this was a minor consideration.

This is all very well, I hear you say, and all very interesting, but did Vauxhall have any association with Jane Austen? It did. She wrote about it in Lesley Castle when she was 16 years old in 1791.  She may not have visited it personally, and there is no mention of it in her letters, but she may have known of it by repute or by reading other novels such as Evelina (1778) or Cecilia (1782) both written by  Fanny Burney, one of Jane Austen’s favoured authors, and which both mention the pleasure garden. In Letter the Seventh from Miss C. Lutterell to Miss M. Lesley, Bristol 27th March, JAne Austen wrote:

In spite of all that People may say about Green fields and the Country I was always of the opinion that London and its Amusements must be very agreeable for a while, and should be very happy could my Mother’s income allow her to jockey us into its Public-places during Winter. I always longed particularly to go to Vaux-hall to see whether the cold Beef there is cut so thin as it is reported,  for I have a sly suspicion that few people understand the art of cutting a slice of cold Beef so well as I do: nay it would be had if I did not know something of the Matter, for it was a part of my education that I took by far the most pains with…

This is one of the things Vauxhall was infamous for- the thinness of the cold meat served in the dining booths. As we find in the book under discussion:

It is impossible to discuss the food without again mentioning the famous Vauxhall ham; this, like the beef, was always served in notoriously thin slices. Many stores circulated about it ,and it even made its appearance in contemporary comic poetry….eventually the thinness of the ham once picturesquely described as “sliced cobwebs” became proverbial; at homes all over London if any diner was feeling abstemious they would ask for their serving of meat to be carved “Vauxhaully”…

(Page 198)

It would seem that, unlike this country gentleman,  below,  Jane Austen,  living in rural Hampshire,  had heard all about it…

I can thoroughly recommend this well-written, witty, informative and scholarly book to you, if you are at all interested in the pleasure garden, its history or how it prospered then eventually closed in 1859. I cannot envisage having to buy another book on the subject, so comprehensive is this one. I will be reporting on the Foundling Hospital Museum exhibit in the summer. But if you want to explore a little on line then do go to Dr Borg and David Coke’s website, here, to experience a little of the Vauxhall Magic.