Last week I reviewed Vauxhall Gardens: A History by David Coke and Alan Borg. That book, while fascinating, gigantic in size and scope, and well worth its price, is rather expensive and I wanted to point you in the way of a more reasonably-priced soft cover book on the same topic, The English Pleasure Garden by Sarah Jane Downing, published by Shire.
This is not a very large book, only 64 page in all, but it manages to be a comprehensive overview on the subject of those lost pleasure gardens, which were such a feature of 18th /early 19th century life. It does not concentrate on one garden, but gives the reader a clear view of the rather short history of these gardens from their Stuart beginnings to their sad Victorian end.
There are chapters on the London gardens, and you may be interested to know that Vauxhall and Ranelagh were not the only gardens to visit. There were 64 pleasure gardens in London and its environs during this period. Here is a picture of one of the more rural pleasure gardens, Sadlers Wells, in Islington, then a small village just outside the city of London.
In the 18th century it was a place to take the waters, hence the name “wells” but today it is rather more well-known as the site of a theatre famous for staging dance in all its forms.
The seedier side of 18th century life that these gardens attracted is also addressed; here is an image from the late 18th century illustrating an intoxicated woman returning home very late (or, more probably, early in the morning!) from a masquerade. This type of image illustrated the growing concern for the immoral effect of masquerades, an entertainment that Ranelagh was famous for promoting.
A fascinating section of the book is its chapters on provincial pleasure gardens. Sydney Gardens in Bath is included, of course, and we all know that Jane Austen lived opposite them at Sydney Place when she first moved to Bath from Steventon in 1801.
But is it very interesting to read of other, less famous gardens in Norwich, Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne- so at least Lydia Wickham had one to attend to enjoy its weekly concerts!-and the lost pleasure garden of Duddeston in Birmingham, seen below, in a very rare image:
In so small a book something has to give: and that is first, the size of the illustrations. However they are many and varied and very useful. And the details can be easily seen by the use of a magnifying glass. Second, citations. It would have been helpful to have more sources listed other than the occasional acknowledgement to a museum or library. But, that would had added to both the size and cost of the book. Some things we have to forgive.
Overall, it is a very useful starting point for understanding these lost but once magical places. I can throughly recommend this book to you.