The latter C17th was the heyday of the Covent Garden coffee-houses, the best known being Wills in Great Russell St. Wills achieved great fame when it became the haunt of London's literati, with the poet John Dryden being the resident man of letters. For 30 years, Dryden served as an inspiration to literary men in London: including Pepys and Pope, but not Jonathan Swift who apparently disliked Wills. In addition to serious discussion of literature, Dryden did satirical entertainment for the other patrons.
Coffee houses located in Westminster were frequented by politicians. Coffee houses near St Paul's Cathedral were loved by clergy and intellectuals who gathered to discuss theology and philosophy. But there were two great problems with the coffee houses. Firstly they were most suited to day time, intellectual activities, and were rather unsuited to night time, social activities. And secondly the social code of the period excluded women from coffee-houses. [Later in the C18th, coffee houses declined but that was because regular gentlemen's clubs arose in their stead, offering better facilities].
Which were Britain’s first Pleasure Gardens? The New Springs Gardens (later Vauxhall), south of the Thames, were probably opened in 1660, in perfect time to celebrate the restoration of the monarchy. Admission was free in the early years, with food and drink being sold to support the venture. There was one compulsory cost; the gardens could only be reached by water via a 6d boat ride, at least until Westminster Bridge was built later on.
The new entertainment centres took hold in the public imagination very quickly and within a year or two, Samuel Pepys was already charmed by pleasure gardens in his diary. A very pleasant evening of dancing, strolling & watching fireworks, said he, would end with tea.
In 1729 merchant Jonathan Tyers bought the Vauxhall Gardens, built supper boxes, painted blinds and raised thousands of lamps. In a rotunda designed by James Paine, an orchestra performed new pieces. The Gardens were central to the dissemination of Rococo in the public fancy, gentle and romantic.
The fashions at Vauxhall, by Thomas Rowlandson, 1779
The pleasure gardens of Ranelagh, in Chelsea, also opened for private pleasure in the C17th. But it wasn’t until 1741 that Ranelagh’s house and grounds were purchased by a group headed by owner of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and subsequently opened to the public.
Early American Gardens blog was a fine source of information about British pleasure gardens. Considered more fashionable than Vauxhall, and with a more expensive entrance fee, Ranelagh was influential, introducing the masquerade to the new middle class. Like Vauxhall, Ranelagh was in the Rocco style, and featured an impressive rotunda and a Chinese pavilion as well as several walks and a lake. More than Vauxhall, it had a reputation for being a convenient and popular place for courtship and romantic assignations. But Vauxhall had tightrope walkers, hot air balloon ascents, fireworks and a totally modern rococo Turkish tent.
The rotunda and Ranelagh, by Canaletto, 1754
Ranelagh featured a circle of boxes in the rotunda interior, as you can see in the Canaletto painting, which was decorated with paintings and lamps. Above the first level, another tier of boxes could seat 8 people and were lit by a circle of 60 upper level windows. The centre was discovered to be poor placement for the orchestra, and so from the beginning was used instead as a fireplace for cool evenings. The Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens was always an important venue for musical concerts, so it was a terrible shame when the rotunda was finally closed in 1803 and soon demolished.
George Frideric Handel might have been born German, but his works flourished in Britain. In 1738 the whole of cultivated London flocked to New Springs, by now called Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, to admire a statue erected to their beloved composer. His greatest works, written in the 1730s-40s, were triumphantly acclaimed in Oxford, London and Dublin eg Esther, Messiah, Zadok the Priest.
Huge crowds could be accommodated at Vauxhall. In 1749 a rehearsal of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks attracted 12,000 very well dressed citizens. Many of the best known musicians and singers of the day performed at the Gardens. Social life was very pleasant for the nobility and the gentry; the pleasure gardens in London provided the same pleasant walks and amusements as the Tivoli Gardens did for Copenhagen.
Graphic Arts noted Thomas Rowlandson's figures were caricatured but identifiable, including Mrs Weichsel singing from the balcony and Mr Barthelemon leading the orchestra. Below was a supper party with James Boswell, Dr Samuel Johnson, Mrs Thrale and Oliver Goldsmith. We know Boswell did indeed frequent Vauxhall and said “I am a great friend to pubic amusements; for they keep people from vice.” Play wright and columnist Captain Topham was looking through a spyglass at the Duchess of Devonshire and her sister, Lady Duncannon. At right the Prince of Wales/later George IV flirted with his ex-mistress, actress Perdita Robinson, who remained rather coyly on the arm of her husband.
Other pleasure gardens opened. Marybone Gardens were officially opened as a venue for concerts and other entertainments in 1738 by a tavern owner, although the site had been used as a private pleasure garden since the restoration of the monarchy. Jane Austen’s World said there were at least 200 outdoor pleasure gardens and tea gardens around London by the Edwardian era! Open only for a short season each year, proprietors of the less spectacular gardens had to earn enough income to keep their establishments open and competitive.
"A view of the Orchestra with the Band of Music, the Grand Walk &c in Marybone Gardens", engraving from a drawing by J Donowell, 1761.
1] Coke, David and Alan Borg Vauxhall Gardens 1661-1859, Yale UP, 2011
2] Downing, Sarah J English Pleasure Garden 1660-1860, Shire, 2009.
3] Scott, Walter Green retreats; story of Vauxhall Gardens, 1661–1859, Odhams Press, London, 1955
4] "A letter from a Foreigner to his friend in Paris", in The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol 12, August 1742.
5] Ranelagh Garden 1764 Fireworks, painted by Joseph Wright of Derby,