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Book review: Vauxhall Gardens: A History

David Coke & Alan Borg (Yale, £55 (*£50))

Behind Vauxhall railway station is a soggy, flat, open space, divided between a park, allotments and a city farm. These 11 acres of municipal grass were once the greatest pleasure garden in Europe. Each summer night in the 18th century, 5,000 people came by carriage or barge. They walked in the avenues, listened to Handel and ate in supper boxes lit by the greatest display of artificial lamplight on Earth.

Vauxhall Gardens was imitated across Europe, but the magic of London’s last Arcadia has never been recaptured. Until now: Alan Borg and David Coke have resurrected it in a magnificent work of evocative scholarship. Their hero is Jonathan Tyers, the Bermondsey merchant who bought the gardens in 1729 and who could only have flourished in the London of his friend William Hogarth. The Spring Gardens had begun in the 17th century as a bucolic escape across the Thames. Pepys’s maids collected pinks, and his boy squeezed through a hedge to pick roses. But it was also licentious and Tyers responded to a call of ‘More nightingales, fewer strumpets!’.

The supper boxes he built were open to view, and diners watched haymakers in the fields. At dusk, blinds painted by Francis Hayman dropped into place, and in a few seconds, a magic taper lit thousands of lamps. It was the first public display of contemporary British art and-when Tyers asked Roubiliac to carve the statue of Handel that is today in the V&A ‘the nursery of the Rococo’. In a rotunda designed by James Paine, an orchestra performed new pieces, but-unlike a modern open-air concert-you could escape. The atmosphere was ‘tumultuous, anarchic, youthful, thrilling’.

Tyers’s true vision was of a society without hierarchy. The gardens were open to everyone except servants in livery, because, Mr Coke points out, that would introduce hierarchy to his classless Eden. He believed pleasure was ‘a basic human right, and a vital element of the balanced life’. But, of course, he was an entrepreneur and jokes about the smallest chickens and the thinnest slices of ham were bandied around in the boats that took Londoners upstream to Vauxhall.

The journey across the Thames became an integral part of the visit, as with Tate Modern today. And the gardens appeared in the novels and scripts of the time-again, like Tate. The gardens closed in 1859, having welcomed 10 million visitors between John Evelyn and Charles Dickens. Their legacy is in art, music, literature and, above all, in the idea of an urban space that is breezy, safe and ordered but gregarious and with a sense of gentle romantic possibility. The anony-mous author of the first guidebook, in 1751, announced: ‘Methinks one of the great Arts of Life is to pass through it with elegant Innocence.’

Gore Vidal quipped that we like to fantasise about travelling back to earlier historic periods until, that is, we remember the dentistry. But this evocation of a lost urban Arcadia is so inspiring that I would brave 18th-century dentistry in exchange for a ticket on the boat to Vauxhall Gardens on a midsummer night.

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