The Triumph Of Pleasure


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.

9 comments on “The Triumph Of Pleasure”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Didn’t know Vauxhall Gardens was linked to Handel and Hogarth. Read and learn.
    I can’t tell you how many novels I’ve read on London in the 16 – 18th centuries and how many of their writers used, or referred to, the Gardens and, perhaps, the Foundling Hospital with no mention of Handel or Hogarth.

  2. snowy says:

    It was also the scene of a landmark in aviation safety.

    In 1837 Mr. Robert Cocking give a demonstration, that was to have a profound impact.

    Given he was a 61 year old water colourist, with no formal scientific training, and no prior experience. ‘Jumping’ with an 8 stone homemade parachute was never going to end well.

    When he ‘leapt’ over Greenwich, the sudden decrease in weight caused the balloon, carrying him to shoot up in the air like a rocket. The aeronauts aboard were only able to remain conscious by breathing air they had carried up in a large silk bag.

    Got to love the Victorians, but as Wodehouse said ‘it is pretty generally admitted that few of them were to be trusted within reach of a trowel and a pile of bricks.’

  3. jan says:

    Chris if you cross the road from the garden on the side nearest to the river theres some flats there which are quite famous they were squatted and became a bit of an issue in the 1970s and 1980s now some are squats but most are legal Lambeth having made some sort of peace with the residents. Well at the side of the flats is another small garden and as you walk in to this garden there is a small boat above you forming the top of a sort of green arch. Well this boat represents or might even be one of the small pleasure boats which punters took out onto the Effra which joined the Thames just near Vauxhall rail and tube station nearby the pleasure gardens and wot is now the M16 Building. (u can see the pipe run into the Thames opposite the Westbourne and another river on the north bank a real confluence of rivers and a holy place think of that stuff about the Vauxhall rive site i sent a bit back.) These gardens open on Open Squares and open house i think i can’t 4 the life of me remember their name SORRY but they are really lovely and very representative of the areas history. Within the lovingly kept gardens theres a massive water wheel taken by the residents when some old factory was demolished. the sites of early industrialization were powered by water and the Effra and other south London rivers which flowed into the Thames made south London ripe for industrialization. North and south of the capital the rivers were used by breweries and distillers to make beer and gin the locations of breweries and the original Gilbies gin site showing the sites of underground rivers, right i’ll shut up now. O no just one more thing the gardens were so popular and visited by so many international visitors they made Vauxhall a very busy station they influenced so many that the russian word for railway station is Vauxhall. aren’t you glad i’m back at the library?

  4. Helen Martin says:

    It’s so much fun reading one of Jan’s posts because you have to do it out loud and you feel slightly breathless after dealing with all the facts she fits into one small para. Vauxhall was a very nice little car, too. We had one for a while when I was a child.

  5. FabienneT says:

    Pleasure Gardens fascinate me! So much so that I’ve used them as a reference for a nightclub in my first novel. I was really inspired by the display at the Museum of London as well, with the metal mannequins they had scattered around the place wearing those sumptuous costumes.

  6. jan says:

    thanks v much Helen but am forced to disagree about Vauxhalls !! we used to have a vauxhall at work and all the blokes i worked with were always telling me to get rid of my beloved old mini and buy a Vauxhall corsa when min finally got v poorly i did and its just not the same!!! The Vauxhall car was of course first created in the area of Vauxhall someone told me it was at first a railway arch garage but i think that might have been urban myth!

    the Square i mentioned above was Bonnington square i remembered when i got home and honestly is well worth a visit, i loved it was interesting.

    Very interesting point Fabienne makes in a roundabout sort of way the Chris himself once wrote that it was odd that the areas of London which housed the Pleasure gardens have now developed into the sort of urban zones where lots of the ’90s superclubs were based. And thats true i am sure theres loads of valid reasons for that but in some psycholgeographical ways it makes another sense. these areas once dedicated to pleasure and recreation remain that whether its people visiting the pleasure gardens taking the waters and enjoying the countryside or kids dropping Es in the 1990s. the places are the same and the taking of pleasure recreation is the same. Interesting.

  7. jan says:

    i think u probably get breathless reading my posts out loud because my punctuation is so dire! My spellings not all that either!!

  8. Helen Martin says:

    I insert verbal punctuation when I read it, Jan. I wonder if recreational areas become that as a natural result of a focusing of enterprises, but it’s also probably a chicken and egg sort of thing. People went from pubs to places of entertainment and vice versa, but were the upper classes frequenting pubs? Was the Pleasure Garden on the edge of upper class housing so it wasn’t far and if you wanted to ‘slum it’ afterward you could go pubbing? When the Pleasure Garden palled or rather became pretty vulgar and dangerous then other venues came along, but still in the same area and then when the Underground and the buses came along those were the places people wanted to go so they became stops. Ethno- and socio-geography are such fascinating subjects. Wish they’d been specialties in my day. A literature and geographical major would be quite enlightening.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, and ours was a Vauxhall Victor and the parents were quite pleased with it. I think it was the one we drove up around the Big Bend in the Rockies. That route was drowned when a dam went in soon after.

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