Three hundred years ago, Western cities were crowded, dirty, and dangerous; today, you can dine al fresco at a chic bistro while enjoying a free concert in the park. How did city people get so good at enjoying life? In Vauxhall Gardens, the art historians and curators David E. Coke and Alan Borg offer a fascinating explanation: Pleasure gardens, which have no real analogue in today's cities, helped to create a certain kind of urban beauty which we now take for granted. Their book is a detailed, lavishly illustrated history of the most important pleasure garden in Europe, Vauxhall, which entertained as many as 100,000 visitors a year in London during its heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was, they write, "a universal withdrawing-room" for a city which was, in important ways, still an experiment.
Seventeenth-century London was, as Coke and Borg put it, “filthy, malodorous, violent, cacophonous and disorderly, the kind of place where an unwanted baby could be left to die on a street corner, or a bear be torn to bits by mastiffs simply for the amusement of the mob." Its public spaces were unsupervised and unsafe, especially at night. Vauxhall Gardens, by contrast, offered a rational kind of entertainment, animated by an Enlightenment spirit. In its early days, Vauxhall could be reached only by ferryboat; once you'd arrived and paid an entrance fee, you could stroll the safe, lamplit paths, listen to music, eat, drink, and socialize. The Gardens were one of the few places where you could walk, at night, with your children, for fun. And everybody went there, from members of the royal family to ordinary working people and families. Within the Garden walls, a modern city unfolded within a medieval one.
In a way, Berg and Coke argue, the Gardens were an incubator for modern urban life -- they were "responsible for some fundamental changes in the cultural and social life of London":
[Vauxhall] boasted the first true gallery of modern British art, and became the nursery of the British Rococo style. Besides this, it gave contemporary music and song its first truly mass audience with a hundred thousand visitors each season; and it created a revolution in mass catering, sometimes feeding up to five thousand visitors in an evening; in addition, it developed the technology of outside lighting to the extent that the two acres of the central Grove could be flooded with artificial light remarkably quickly.
As time went on, the Gardens became steadily more extraordinary: by the nineteenth century, they were a Disneyland-like wonderland, filled with multi-tiered grottoes and elaborate displays of art and sculpture. Wordsworth, who visited as a teenager, recalled (in the Prelude) a "wilderness of lamps / Dimming the stars, and fireworks magical, / And gorgeous ladies, under splendid domes, / Floating in dance, or warbling high in air / The songs of spirits!" Innumerable novels featured scenes of romance and intrigue set in Vauxhall.
Vauxhall Gardens closed in 1859; newer urban pleasures, such as circuses and concert halls, combined with cheaper transportation to the seaside to push them out of business. What remains today is, more or less, a bunch of intersections. Many of the pleasures the Gardens offered, of course, are now available in the city at large -- but the idea of a "pleasure garden" itself has grown elusive. Ultimately, Vauxhall Gardens, by describing the Gardens in painstaking, evocative detail, suggests that we might be missing out. Our cities are safe, fun, and well-lit. But the Gardens, Borg and Coke write, were "anarchic, tumultuous, youthful, thrilling, kaleidoscopic and, for most people, totally foreign to their day-to-day lives." They were a mixture of reality and fantasy, right in the heart of the city.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.