There was a lot happening in London this weekend, Damon Albarn’s African Festival could be enjoyed from my kitchen door, while the Thames Festival is expecting a huge turnout, to be followed on Monday by a million arriving for the Olympic Parade. As it seems that the wettest summer in a century is determined to be bookended by a week of blazing heat, I took myself off to the cooler, quieter environs of the Foundling Museum to check out ‘The Triumph of Pleasure: Vauxhall Gardens 1729-1786).
I’d already seen the Museum of London’s large display of the pleasure gardens, which is technically clever, with an almost 3D movie performance of 18th-century pleasure-seekers, from the Turkish ambassador to a cross-dressing lady of fashion. Today’s exhibition is more about the nuts and bolts of the place. I particularly liked the season tickets, medallions made of silver that were designed to be worn around the neck, and the ‘life membership’ ticket, a glamorous stamped medal of pure gold.
But first, what is a display about a pleasure garden doing at the Foundling Museum at all? The answer lies with two creative geniuses, both of whom are represented here – George Frideric Handel and William Hogarth. Handel and Hogarth were both linked to the two great undertakings of building a hospital for foundlings and creating a garden where music and art could be appreciated in peaceful surroundings.
As the gardens grew in popularity, they were filled with ever more extravagant entertainments. The idea was to provide a sensory Elysium for those worn down by the dissonance of the London streets. Inevitably the gardens became a rip-off, haunted by pickpockets, whores and ‘demi-reps’ (female escorts who enlivened male company). The ham in the sandwiches became so expensive and gossamer-thin that the term ‘Vauxhally’ became an everyday expression meaning extreme thinness.
Wandering around the rest of the museum, I realised it does that weird London thing of starting off on one subject and ending up on another, for as you progress through past the orphan suits and tokens you end up in Handel’s music library, the repository of all his sheet music. The Canal Museum does that too, starting with boats and ending up with the history of ice cream (the canal boats brought in the ice and the Italians made ice cream on the spot).
These days, a rather bare-looking park stands on the site of the once elegant pleasure gardens.