A history of pleasure gardens and where to visit them
Seeking leisure, entertainment and sociability, all walks of Georgian society revelled in the newly opened pleasure gardens. Rhiannon Batten takes a stroll…
When my children were toddlers, we would often totter down to Sydney Gardens in Bath, and stand on one of the bridges that span the Great Western Railway. If we got a friendly train driver, they would blast the horn as they raced beneath us, sending my two waving boys into rapturous squeals. This may not have been one of the park’s official diversions but the train drivers were, unwittingly, continuing a long tradition, since the park was originally designed as a pleasure garden.
Many gardens deserve that title – those of historian Sallust in ancient Rome, perhaps, the horticultural showstopper of Versailles, or the pleasure grounds and Arcadian landscapes of English country houses in the 18th century. But the pleasure garden as a specific concept emerged in the late 17th century in England, reached its peak in the Regency era and started petering out in the mid 1800s.
From Vauxhall, Ranelagh, Marylebone and Cremorne Gardens in London to Duddeston in Birmingham, My Lord’s Garden in Norwich, Sydney Gardens in Bath and Rosherville in Gravesend, these Georgian ‘Disneylands’ were places where visitors could promenade through artfully designed grounds, passing cascading fountains, curious grottoes and dazzling illuminations.
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Entertainment was another defining element. Genteel precursors to the theme park, pleasure gardens drew their customers’ attention with concerts, balls, plays, firework displays and, later, even hot air balloon ascents. ‘Horticulture wasn’t really important,’ says Kate Felus, author of The Secret Life of the Georgian Garden. ‘Pleasure gardens were more closely related to things like the theatre and opera.’ Music was an intrinsic part of the appeal, she adds, with musicians trying out new pieces at pleasure gardens before launching them on wider audiences; when Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was first rehearsed in Vauxhall Gardens in 1749, it apparently caused a three-hour carriage jam as thousands rushed to hear it.
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The inclusion of culture was crucial, concurs Sarah-Jane Downing, author of The English Pleasure Garden 1660 – 1860. The lightbulb moment for Jonathan Tyers, the impresario behind the rise of Vauxhall Gardens, came when he got his friend, the painter William Hogarth, involved, she says. ‘When Tyers was about to open the garden, he was worried how successful it would be. It was Hogarth’s idea to include art within the garden and for there to be a painting within each supper box. That really helped Tyers make it a triumph.’ Which he did; the Prince of Wales attended the gardens’ opening night, and later became such a regular that a special pavilion was built for him.
As with the many pleasure gardens that followed (in the 18th century there were 64 in London alone), the emergence of Vauxhall Gardens was a response to three key stimuli. First was the restoration of the monarchy after years of puritanism, feeding a long-suppressed appetite for jollity and indulgence. Another was the appeal of spaces free of the dirty, smelly, perilous reality of urban life. Thirdly, a fear of the plague drove a thirst for outdoor socialising.
‘If you think about the Covid pandemic and how worried we have been about being in close quarters with people, it was the same kind of situation in the 17th and 18th centuries,’ says Downing. ‘The plague kept returning. To be able to access an expanse of garden, lit by beautiful banks of lights, without having to provide the servant power, the space or the resources to do it yourself… that would have been quite exciting.’
So, too, was the fact that pleasure gardens were open to all. The entrance fee may have excluded some visitors but in theory, at least, you didn’t have to be from a certain class. ‘If you could stump up the money, by whatever means, you could go,’ says Downing. ‘Dick Turpin, for instance, was known to be a frequenter of Marylebone Gardens.’ And one of the more notorious features of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens was the ‘dark walks’. ‘Respectable young ladies would go into that area of the garden at their peril,’ says Felus. ‘In Fanny Burney’s Evelina, published in 1778, the heroine makes the mistake of going into the dark walks and gets accosted by a gentleman who has not got honourable intentions.’
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Such social mixing provided an exciting frisson in an age where socialising, more generally, was governed by tightly proscribed rules. ‘This was really brought into play on masquerade nights,’ says Downing. ‘There was an excitement about the idea that you might meet someone you hadn’t been introduced to, who was not already in your social circle. With a mask they could be playing a very different role to that of their normal life but then, so could you.’
One of the most iconic evenings at Vauxhall Gardens was a fete held to celebrate Wellington’s victory in the Battle of Vitoria, in 1813. ‘This was such a huge deal that fashion magazine La Belle Assemblée included illustrations of potential ballgowns to wear at the event,’ says Downing.
By the late 1800s, however, pleasure gardens were in decline. Many had disappeared altogether. ‘The public’s tastes changed and technology changed,’ explains Felus. ‘Pleasure gardens evolved but, ultimately, they were businesses, and businesses go bust. Sometimes the land became more valuable for its development potential than for the profits to be had from running a
Nearly two centuries on, the pleasure garden may yet rise again. TV shows such as Bridgerton have sparked fresh interest in all things ‘regencycore’ while the pandemic has left people more willing to socialise outdoors. At the same time, bold new garden projects are taking root, melding ambitious landscaping with art, food and entertainment – among them, The Newt in Somerset, the RHS garden in Salford and (coming soon) the Natural History Museum garden in London.
Over Easter I took my sons back to Sydney Gardens. Fresh from a major renovation project, the park is thriving once more. Smart gravelled pathways loop around elegant planting. Glossy green Edwardian toilets and the Temple of Minerva have been restored. In place of cascading fountains, a sleek new children’s playground incorporates a water-play feature. Balls skitter and shoot across tennis and petanque courts. And plans are afoot to welcome drummers, dancers, diners and more to the gardens during July’s Bath Carnival. Jonathan Tyers couldn’t fail to be impressed.
Pleasure Gardens to visit
Vauxhall Gardens, London
The first, and most famous, pleasure garden. As the New Spring Gardens, the site had been a place to gather since around 1660 (including for Samuel Pepys) but when Jonathan Tyers bought it in 1728 he developed its 12 acres into something far more sophisticated. Building grand walks, triumphal arches and statues, Tyers charged an entrance fee and added to the pavilions orchestra and supper boxes, with an ambitious programme of re-enactments, masquerades, equestrian performances and fireworks.
Sydney Gardens, Bath
When Sydney Gardens opened in 1795, spilling out behind the Sydney Hotel (now the Holburne Museum) it was the largest garden outside London. Jane Austen enjoyed walks around the labyrinth while another attraction was the cosmorama, which showed visitors faraway scenes in 3D. When the Kennet and Avon Canal and Brunel’s Great Western Railway cut through the gardens in the early and mid 1800s, however, the gardens’ decline had begun. By the end of that century Bath was no longer quite so fashionable.
One of a run of successful pleasure gardens that opened just as their forebears were closing, Denmark’s Tivoli Gardens launched in 1843, and still remains in operation. Originally calling itself Tivoli and Vauxhall, in a nod to the Paris and London gardens that had inspired it, in turn the park went on to inspire Disneyland; Walt Disney visited in 1951, four years before he opened his iconic amusement park in California, and it is said to have been instrumental in shaping his ideas.
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