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7 - The London Pleasure Gardens

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 May 2024

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Summary

That ephemeral and elusive phenomenon of leisure life in London, the Pleasure Garden, shone most brightly in the 18th century. It was not confined to London, and even the names of the London gardens were to be encountered in those provincial cities that adopted the fashion; but the principal London models furnish the greatest number of illustrations, Vauxhall above all. The pleasure gardens can be distinguished from private gardens or public parks since they were run as commercial enterprises which charged for admission. They constituted the principal loci for organised leisure or pleasure al fresco, and Warwick Wroth in his still definitive account of the subject (1896) listed 64, though many were small and no more than pub or spa gardens where bowls or skittles might be played. The pleasure gardens were formal in layout, in order to make optimum use of the confined space, but that does not mean that the new gardening was ignored. Far from it: several elements of the landscape garden were incorporated, particularly trompe l’oeil illusion and theatrical effects.

The purposes of the pleasure garden were to see and be seen; to mix socially; to have assignations; to eat and drink; to listen to music both played and sung; to stroll and inspect the various garden features; to dance; and to enjoy a summer evening, on the disappointingly few occasions when the weather was benign. The season usually ran from May to September, though it varied, and some of the gardens were open during the day. As time went on, further popular entertainments were added – fireworks, balls, exhibitions, juggling, tight-rope walking. Above all, pleasure gardens were about people, as the plentiful images testify, and in some ways this is the antithesis of the landscape garden, which could often be enjoyed in solitude and contemplation. The proprietors took advantage of the crowds by using prints as marketing tools: at Vauxhall, for instance, they were sold in the walks.

The pleasure gardens varied in reputation and respectability. It is still a moot question as to the social range of attendees: the entrance fee of one shilling at Vauxhall, a tenth of a labourer's average weekly wage, would deter all but the well off, but employers would bring their servants in; and those who stood to gain financially from the evening out – pickpockets and prostitutes – would find no difficulty in gaining access.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2024

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