Ranelagh and Vauxhall Gardens

The Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens painted by Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768)

The following description of Ranelagh and Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens is quoted from, “a letter from a Foreigner to his friend in Paris”, that appeared in┬áThe Gentleman’s Magazine (Volume 12) in August 1742.

“……………..an English Gentleman had the goodness to be my guide, from whom I readily accepted an invitation to spend an Evening at a noble village in sight of the Town, and situate by the side of the River Thames.

I repaired to the rendezvous, which was the Park adjoining to the Palace Royal, and which answers to our Tuilleries; where we sauntered with, a handful of fine company, till it was almost twilight; a time, I thought, not a little unseasonable for a tour into the country.

We had no sooner quitted the Park, but we found ourselves in a road full of people, illuminated with Lamps on each side. The dust was the only inconvenience, but in half an hour, we found ourselves at a gate, where money was demanded and paid for our admittance; and immediately my eyes were struck with a large building of an orbicular figure, with a row of windows round attic story, through which it seemed to be liberally illuminated within; and, altogether, presented to the eye such an image as a man, of a whimsical imagination, would not scruple to call, a Giant’s Lanthorn.

Into this enchanted place we entered with more haste than ceremony; and, at the first glance, I, for my part, found myself dumb with surprise and astonishment, in the middle of a vast amphitheatre, for structure Roman; for decorations of paint and gildings, gay as the Asiatic; four grand portals, in the manner of the ancient triumphal arches, and four times twelve boxes, in a double row, with suitable pilasters between, form the whole interior of this wonderful fabric, save that, in the middle, a magnificent orchestra arises to the roof, from which depend several large branches, which contain a great number of candles enclosed in crystal-glasses, at once to light and adorn the spacious Rotund.

Groups of well-dressed persons were dispersed in the Boxes, numbers covered the area, all manner of refreshments were within call; and music of all kinds echoed, though not intelligibly, from every one of those elegant retreats, whither pleasure seemed to beckon her wanton followers.

I have acknowledged myself charmed at my entrance; you will wonder therefore when I tell you, that satiety followed: in five minutes I was familiar with the whole and every part, in the next five indifference took place, in five more my eyes grew dazzled, my head grew giddy, and all night I dreamt of Vanity Fair.

The Evening following this, was one of those which this climate so seldom enjoys, and which the happiest might envy: it was just hot enough to render what little air was abroad refreshing, which rather fanned than rustled the leaves, rather kissed than disturbed the stream.

I mention the last, because the scene was now changed to the water. On the Thames we had a noble prospect of that renowned Capital, which those Frenchmen who have never seen it, only affect to despise, and in the midst of several little pleasure boats , all filled with the gay, the fair, the happy, and the young, after a very short voyage, we landed on the opposite shore.

The orchestra at Vauxhall Gardens painted by Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768)

The evening had again almost overtaken us: we were to pursue the rest of our way on foot, and not a single lamp appeared to comfort us; I had the prudence, however, to hold my peace, and was again introduced to a place of a very different kind, from that I had visited the night before: vistas, woods, tents, buildings, and company I had a glimpse of, but could discover none of them distinctly, for which reason I began to repine that we had not arrived sooner, when, all in a moment, as if by magic, every object was made visible, I should rather say illustrious, by a thousand lights finely disposed, which were kindled at one and the same signal; and my ears and my eyes, head and heart, were captivated at once.

Right before me extended a long and regular vista; on my right hand, I stepped into a delightful grove, wild, as if planted by the hand of nature, under the foliage of which, at equal distances, I found two similar tents, of such a contrivance and form, as a painter of genius and judgment would choose to adorn his landscape with. Further on, still on my right, through a noble triumphal Arch, with a grand curtain, still in the picturesque stile, artificially thrown; over it, an excellent statue of Handel appears, in the action of playing upon the Lyre, which is finely set off by various greens, which form, in miniature, a seat of woody theatre.

The grove itself is bounded on three sides, except the intervals made by the two vistas, which lead to and from it, with a plain, but handsome colonnade; divided into different apartments, to receive different companies, and distinguished and adorned with paintings, which though slight, are well fancied, and have a very good effect.

In the middle centre of the grove, fronting a handsome Banqueting Room, the very portico of which is adorned and illuminated with curious lustres of crystal glass, stands the orchestra, (for music is likewise here the soul of the entertainment) and at some distance behind it, a Pavilion, it beggars all description; I do not mean for the richness of the materials, of which it is composed, but for the nobleness of the design, and the elegance of the decorations with which it is adorned: In a word, Architecture, such as Greece would not be ashamed of, and drapery, far beyond the imaginations of the East, are here united in a taste that, I believe, never was equalled, nor can be exceeded. Both the centre, and the several divisions round it, which are all open to the eye, are hung with crystal lustres: And the whole together, with so many groups of happy people, gratified in almost every sense at once, underneath it, make me fancy that another Armida was the Goddess of the place, and had exhausted all that art and nature had to boast of, in order to rival paradise itself, and render us frail creatures thoughtless of an hereafter.

I must avow, I found my whole soul, as it were, dissolved in pleasure; not only you, but even Paris itself was forgot – discourse, while there, was a rhapsody of joy and wonder. Assure yourself such an assemblage of beauties never, but in the dreams of the poets, ever met before – and I scarce yet believe the bewitching scene was real.

See here the taste of Britain! and reason like a philosopher and a politician upon the consequences! – I add no more, but am now awake, and very sincerely, Yours, &c.”

3 thoughts on “Ranelagh and Vauxhall Gardens

  1. I found your site quite by accident while Googling for the music of William Croft. It is outstanding. I really enjoyed reading the contemporary description of Vauxhall Gardens.
    Best regards,

    • Many thanks for your comments. I was particularly pleased that you enjoyed the contemporary description of Vauxhall Gardens. I always felt it to be a major document in our understanding of that part of London musical life. Thanks again for commenting.

  2. Just released Handel at Vauxhall – great CD from Signum Records conducted by Bridget Cunningham wonderful notes by David Coke author of Vauxhall – A History (Yale) and Bridget on the music of Handel, Arne, Boyce, Worgan, Hebden. Part of a New Handel Series featuring London Early Opera with singers including Sophie, Mary & Benjamin Beva . Volume 2 follows Spring 2017.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *