Sunday, January 29, 2012
The Pleasure Garden
The Times Literary Supplement recently published an engaging review of a new book by David Coke and Alan Borg, Vauxhall Gardens: A History. The book exhaustively re-constructs the world of Vauxhall and its enormous appeal to Londoners in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Essentially a pre-industrial amusement park, the pleasure garden, like Vauxhall (and, later, Niblo's in New York City), established a vogue for informal amusement outdoors--extended promenading, ice cream and other novelty refreshments, fireworks, theatrical productions, and big orchestra concerts. It had a tawdry side, too--the grand openness and informality of the park encouraged prostitution, gambling, and other illicit pleasures. One has to wonder at the kind of sensual appeal constructed in the 18th century pleasure garden--an exciting cornucopia of monumental scale, novelty, and informality. Vauxhall and later pleasure gardens were at the forefront of the emerging forms of commercial spectacle in cities that began to shape new groups of eager and devoted consumers--as well as vehement critics and earnest reformers. You could argue that "modern" popular culture starts here.
Especially useful for the study of audiences is the website accompanying an upcoming Foundling Museum exhibition on Vauxhall, curated by David Coke. As with early concerts and theater, we don't actually have much evidence about how people used and really experienced pleasure gardens, but this site collects what we do know, including a list of subscribers (and the souvenir metal "tickets" offered for a season subscription), as well as an online archive of contemporary accounts of the gardens, from the celebratory to the sarcastic.