Freelance writer Sarah Jane Downing is the author of a fascinating new book on the English Pleasure Garden, which looks at its beginnings as a 17th-century escape from urban life, right through to its decline in the 19th century. The book - which provides an overview of provincial gardens as well as their London counterparts - is packed with fantastic illustrations, such as The Theatre and Fountain at Vauxhall Gardens (pictured above). In an exclusive Memoirs interview, I quizzed the author on bucolic entertainment through the ages.
In what ways were the early pleasure gardens of the 17th century places of escape from ordinary life?
Even for the well-to-do the city was dirty and dangerous, crowded with traffic, packed with cutpurses, and with the absence of police force or sewerage system quite squalid. New building was crammed on top of the medieval city, and there was very little green space aside from the private parks of the nobility. After the enforced prohibition of the interregnum people wanted entertainment and to socialize but the spectre of the plague lurked at any public gathering which was also marred by the aroma of so many unwashed bodies. The Pleasure Gardens provided the perfect antidote, a beautiful oasis perfumed with flowers, adorned with birdsong, and decorated with glittering lights where people could stroll peacefully along the manicured walks.
The 18th century was the age of landscape gardening. How did that impact on pleasure gardens?
For those far away from their country estates or without the opportunity to indulge the new passion for horticulture in the city, the Pleasure Gardens offered a way of enjoying the results without the effort of creation. The proprietors of the pleasure gardens were very keen to include new aesthetics and many added ornamental hedges, statuary, obelisks, and Grecian temples. It was Jonathan Tyers in particular who embraced the theatricality of landscape design, making Vauxhall Gardens the embodiment of Rococo Romanticism.
What part did Vauxhall and Ranelagh play in the development of the arts in the 18th century?
Vauxhall and Ranelagh played a significant role in both nurturing and the proliferation of the arts. They showcased the finest musicians and artists of the day, hosting Mozart’s English debut, and provided literary inspiration for Pepys, Thackeray, Austen and Dickens, they were also the subject of poetry, painting, and opera. Tyers' commission of Francis Hayman to paint a series of paintings for each of the supper boxes was amongst the first commissions for art that would be in a public space.
Do you think the gardens were liberating places of entertainment for women, or were they not terribly respectable?
For most women they were a pleasant place to spend an evening or attend a smart public breakfast, offering an irresistible opportunity to display their newest finery and indulge their Romantic sensibilities. There was also the frisson of excitement that they might get to have a little un-chaperoned conversation especially at a masquerade where undoubtedly some people would use their anonymity to drop their usual decorum. One of the few places where scandalous women and courtesans could attend, no doubt there were some illicit liaisons in the dark walks where ladies were warned not to go.
What caused the eventual decline of the gardens?
For each Pleasure Garden there is its own sad little story of decline, but the general causes were changes in fashion and the advent of the railways. For most people their holiday really was only a day and they were limited by how far they could travel without compromising their time for enjoyment. People were pleased to spend a happy day at a Pleasure Garden when they could get no further, but when the railways began to provide reasonably priced travel their horizons expanded to the seaside.
The English Pleasure Garden: 1660-1860 (Shire Library, £5.99) is out now in the UK and will be published in the US on July 21.