Friday, May 15, 2009
In the Night Garden
No, that’s not a title to a M. Night Shyamalan movie, and I’m not going to discuss the children’s television program. There was a different kind of garden in the nineteenth century, a garden that was truly best by night: the Pleasure Garden.
The idea was that landscaped grounds illuminated by lanterns were both breathtaking and mysterious. People paid to come and walk around, perhaps listen to a concert, perhaps sneak off for a little kiss behind the willow. Who knows what could happen under the canopy of the stars?
The most famous of the Pleasure Gardens was Vauxhall, on the south bank of the Thames near London. It opened generally in May and ran Monday, Wednesday, and Friday starting at 7:00pm hrough the summer months. Like Disneyland today, the entire arrangement was designed to transport you to another place, a fairy land, for one night.
You might arrive by carriage after crossing Westminster Bridge, but just as often you would take a ferry across to Vauxhall Stairs. The dark water crossing was part of the show. Once at the garden gate, you paid the entrance fee of a few shillings. Such a low fee guaranteed that people from all walks of life could enter. That also was part of the show. You never knew who you’d be rubbing shoulders with at Vauxhall—the laundress who did your shirts or the Prince of Wales himself.
Vauxhall consisted acres of trees, hedges, and charming little pavilions. Some areas of the garden were illuminated by the glow of colored lanterns. One contemporary account claims the garden boasted 37,000 such lanterns. Other areas were intentionally dark, giving cover to secret lovers. You might stroll along a particular walk, nodding to acquaintances, stopping to chat or enjoy a piece of art or statue that was being illuminated that night. You also scurried to secure your own pavilion for the evening’s entertainment. Each pavilion featured a table and chairs as well as paintings by some of the most popular artists of the day, including Hogarth and Hayman.
While every attempt was made to keep the garden safe and secure, the possibility of danger was part of the thrill of attendance. The stories told in dozens of books are only too right: a lady had to be careful where she walked in Vauxhall. It was just as easy to lose your purse as your virtue.
But as long as you were careful in your connections, you could have a great time! Every night an orchestra performed a concert of the latest songs from the most popular composers, and sometimes renowned singers joined them. Half way through the concert a bell signaled the illumination of the Cascade, which was a huge waterfall display in the center of the garden. Apparently it was only lit for 15 minutes. Given the technology difficulties of uniting lanterns and water, one can imagine why. The night finished with a brilliant fireworks display.
Special occasions called for a grander show, and steeper ticket prices. In 1813 Vauxhall held a massive party to celebrate Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Vittoria. In 1814, the gardens featured a mock naval battle, complete with canon fire and ships sinking under billows of smoke.
You know, I’m thinking the Disney analogy isn’t that far off!
Bonus: When I was confirming some facts for this post, I ran across an outstanding online resource. If you are interested in learning more about Vauxhall, point your browser to David Coke’s Vauxhall Garden’s page. The author’s credentials appear impeccable, and the details, including links to more information, are all a lover of history could want.