The Triumph of Pleasure
Location: The Foundling Museum, London
Event Date: May 2012
Review Date: 24th May 2012
Reviewed By: Olive Baldwin and Thelma Wilson
Review Citation: Olive Baldwin and Thelma Wilson, review of The Triumph of Pleasure
Date Accessed: 21st May 2013
The Spring Gardens at Vauxhall on the south bank of the Thames were open from the early 1660s, when they formed a pleasantly rural resort with expensive food and drink and a dubious reputation after dark. The lavishly illustrated book, Vauxhall Gardens: A History
(Yale University Press, 2011), edited by the exhibition curator with Alan Borg, traces the full history of the gardens until their closure in 1859, but this exhibition looks at their heyday, which began in 1729 when a young tradesman, Jonathan Tyers (1702-67) became the proprietor and set about improving both the moral and aesthetic nature of the gardens. David Coke has chosen 1786 as the cut-off date because this was the year of the gardens’ ‘Grand Jubilee’, celebrating 50 years from the extensive remodelling of the gardens in the winter of 1735-6 during which ‘upwards of 500 Hands’ had spent eight months improving the walks and groves, installing more lamps and constructing the first version of the famous ranks of supper boxes.
Descending the stairs to the main exhibition room, one encounters pictures of the watermen who ferried many of the gardens’ visitors across the Thames. A nice touch is a display board at the entrance detailing what happened on that very day: on the date of our visit the artist Arthur Pond went to the gardens for the first time and spent three shillings (the equivalent to about £27 today). Throughout the 18th century the Vauxhall entry price remained at one shilling, the cost of an upper gallery seat at the theatres. Everyone who could afford the occasional theatre visit and was sufficiently respectably dressed could go to Vauxhall, walk through the same entrance as those much higher up the social scale, admire the walks, decorations and illuminations and listen to the music. Even the Prince of Wales, the ground landlord and a regular visitor with his own pavilion in the gardens, had to go in through the sole entrance. Vauxhall’s food and drink was considered expensive and the slices of ham were notoriously thin, but it was the efficient system of mass catering organised by Tyers that made the gardens financially viable.
The Foundling Museum’s basement exhibition room has been transformed by Joe Ewart and Hugh Durrant of ‘Society’ into a greenish evocation of the gardens, with leaf-painted partitions and translucent screens before the windows showing perspective views of the walks. An impressive number of paintings, prints, books and other objects are on display, gathered from many public and private collections. The captions are clear and helpful, except that those for a couple of the display cases are difficult to access by the vertically challenged like ourselves. The largest individual item is a scale model of the gardens c 1750 made by Lucy Askew for the exhibition Rococo, Art and Design in Hogarth’s England
at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1984. It is attractive in itself, a reminder of the number of trees that were such a feature of Vauxhall, and useful in locating the relative positions of the places shown in the paintings and prints. A large transparency in which the lamps light up at the press of a button gives some idea of the delight afforded to 18th century visitors by the almost simultaneous illumination of thousands of lamps in the system using a coordinated squad of lamp-lighters and linked fuses that Tyers devised and initiated each evening by means of a whistle.
Francis Hayman is the artist most closely associated with Vauxhall Gardens, for he devised and oversaw the production of the paintings on the draught-excluding walls that were added to the supper boxes from the early 1740s. One of these large paintings, The Play of See-saw
, is in the exhibition, but has surely become coarsened over the years by much necessary re-painting, for the supper box pictures were exposed to the air every evening. A sketch in oils of a scene from The Tempest
painted by Hayman for the portico of the Prince of Wales’s pavilion is also included, as is his charmingly grouped conversation piece, The Tyers Family
. Hayman himself is seen in a warmly observed portrait by Reynolds from the Royal Academy, and nearby is the Gainsborough portrait of J. C. Bach from the NPG. (Songs by ‘the London Bach’ were heard at Vauxhall in the 1760s and 70s.) There are many prints of Vauxhall, and also Canaletto’s vista of the Grand Walk c 1751 from Compton Verney and Thomas Rowlandson’s delightful and acutely observed watercolour of 1784 showing the singer Mrs Weichsel and a large group of listeners and diners.
Jonathan Tyers was only 26 when he took over control of the gardens, and he seems to have despaired of making them a going concern until he realised that what was needed was music of good quality on each night, rather than a few grand and expensive ridottos. He erected a bandstand for the instrumentalists in 1735 and two years later added a building for an organ, constructed so that the instrument could be heard throughout the gardens. The exhibition captions overemphasise the preponderance of new music at Vauxhall. Certainly a good deal of music was published as performed there, particularly songs by Arne from 1745 and by Hook from 1768, but not all of the music was new. Regular newspaper advertisements detailing the programmes only begin in 1786, but these show that music popular in concerts and at the theatre was also important. The claim that Handel directed the music at Vauxhall from 1737 until 1745, when he was succeeded by Arne, is surely misguided. Tyers showed admirable taste and commercial acumen in featuring Handel’s music and celebrating the composer’s status by commissioning the marble statue by Roubiliac that was set up in 1738, but Handel’s role as a director of music rests on one comment from an anonymous French visitor in 1737. The music would have been chosen by the leader of the orchestra and the organist, perhaps with input from Tyers, and directed each evening by the leader. There was no harpsichord (impossible to keep it in tune in the open air), there are no records of Handel playing the Vauxhall organ and the composer’s summers were otherwise occupied. In 1742, for instance, he spent the entire Vauxhall season in Ireland. It would be better, too, to describe Arne as Vauxhall’s principal composer rather than as the director of music.
William Hogarth was a friend of Tyers and is said to have encouraged him to make a prominent feature of English art in his gardens. Both Hogarth and Handel were given life-time passes to the gardens and it is the importance of these two men to the Foundling Hospital as well as to the gardens that lies behind the exhibition’s venue. Hogarth was instrumental in making the Foundling Hospital a place to display contemporary English art and Handel’s Messiah
, of course, raised huge sums for the hospital. The Gerald Coke Handel Collection on the top floor of the museum has made its own contribution to the exhibition by devoting one of its two large display cases to music performed at Vauxhall and featuring coloured engravings of the gardens on its walls. On the first floor of the museum the Court Room contains biblical scenes painted for the hospital by both Hogarth and Hayman and the Picture Gallery holds Hogarth’s magnificent portrait of the hospital’s founder, Thomas Coram. During the exhibition, the corridor between these two rooms is displaying a trio of splendid terracotta busts by Roubiliac, dating from between 1738 and 1741 - the NPG’s Hogarth, the V&A’s Tyers and the Foundling Museum’s own bust of Handel, here shown together for the first time. The artist, the impresario and the composer were each of them skilful in the art of self promotion, but at the same time determined to provide art and entertainment of the highest quality and moral worth. Opposite the busts is a case containing a huge punch bowl, made in China for the export market, with a picture of the Foundling Hospital on one side and Vauxhall Gardens on the other, both taken from contemporary engravings, and designed to illustrate London’s philanthropy and its artistic taste. This case also includes a copper Vauxhall season ticket for 1737, left as a token with one of the foundlings admitted to the hospital a few years later.‘The Triumph of Pleasure’, curated by David Coke, is at the Foundling Museum, London, 11 May to 9 September 2012.