With the ‘urban renaissance’ of the eighteenth century came new forms of sociality which included unprecedented levels of social mixing.1 One of the spaces in which these forms occurred is the pleasure garden, and this literature review collates varying perspectives on Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in the mid eighteenth century. While Vauxhall has been studied far more than other pleasure gardens, Vauxhall acted as a template to be exported, with ‘Vauxhalls’ subsequently appearing abroad under the unofficial brand-name. Thus Vauxhall can be understood as an apparatus illuminating broader contexts.2 Furthermore there are aspects of Vauxhall which remain under-theorised, as will be shown later. Scholars have been writing about Vauxhall since Warwick Wroth in 1896, and yet works as recent as Barnaby (2017), Conlin (2012) and Coke (2011) are invaluable for uncovering unexplored avenues of investigation.3 While a full review of all works published since Wroth is impossible, this thematic review focuses only on the most recent works, especially those intentionally suggestive or posed as invitations to further study.

Existing Literature

The tendency of recent literature on Vauxhall has been to shake off the formal/informal opposition established by academic treatments of Walpole’s essay on the development of landscape gardening.4 Older narratives endorsed Whig historiography, namely, the attempt to link all developments to a teleology of progress. It is uncontroversial to state that an expanding electorate inclusive of mercantile classes within 17th-19th Century Europe extended overseas trade, redistributed wealth and created a new aspiring secular class of landowners with novel ways of spending time. However, these extremely broad generalisations do not directly account for the specific features of a given pleasure garden. Freed from the insistence that pleasure gardens must be inserted somewhere in landscape garden history (from ‘French’ absolutist formality to Whig irregular asymmetry), recent scholarship has been able to focus on Vauxhall’s other aspects: its social accessibility;5 its situation within ideologies of the urban and rural;6 its horticultural significance;7 its artistic contribution towards nation-building;8 its theatricality;9 its ‘afterlife’;10 its significance for popular music;11 its multimedia aspects;12 its moral duality;13 its location in an emerging environmental discourse;14 and its ambiguous status as a place between reality and illusion.15 Surprisingly, not a great deal has been written specifically on the use of space in Vauxhall Gardens. An attempt to address this is made in the second part of this essay where the segmentation of space in the supper-boxes, and their adjacency to the Temple of Comus and the Grand Walk will be discussed.

There is some debate about the extent to which Vauxhall improved mingling between social classes and how much it preserved social stratification. John Brewer’s The Pleasures of the Imagination shows how ‘promoting high culture and art to all for the price of a ticket’, new venues represented ‘a move away from court patronage and elitist principles’ towards increased public access.16 However, more recently Hannah Greig and Peter Borsay have (independently) argued that the idea of a newly inclusive public life did not always match the practical reality, and that patrons of the gardens remained socially distinctive in their use of the site.17 A related question is which public could afford to visit Vauxhall. Admission may have only cost one shilling (after 1732), but full participation in the ethos of the gardens ordinarily required dress of a certain quality, or a hired costume for the ridotto, and the food was notoriously overpriced. These considerations placed a prohibitively costly bar on fullest participation in the social life of the gardens, impeding broadest public access.18

An under-represented aspect of Vauxhall to consider is the demarcation of leisure from work. Musicians, singers, waiters, and lamp-lighters all worked there (unofficially, also thieves and prostitutes), and the leisure of visitors was dependent on their labour. How was the demarcation of the two achieved in terms of the built structures? So far this question seems to have gone unanswered in existing literature. The spatial relationship of the musicians in the Grand Orchestra to their public is glancingly touched on in an older work by David Solkin, and more recently by Rachel Cowgill.19 It is also noted by Penelope Corfield that domestic servants were banned from Vauxhall’s Walks, and by Ogborn that they had to be left in a ‘coop’ by the entrance.20 This is fertile ground for questions about segregated space.

Much has been made of the cultural impact of a changing polity. Substantial political changes from the late 17th Century onwards gave rise to an increasing emphasis on the morally autonomous individual. The new individual was modelled on taste, decorum and a politesse developed and promoted in the new public sphere of letters and publications (such as the Spectator, Tatler, and Gentlemen’s Magazine).21 Being literary and discursive, however, limited this influence to a predominantly male bourgeois public sphere of coffee-houses, whereas older forms of socialisation such as the carnivalesque-grotesque always threatened to return in situations of public festivity, eating, drinking, and dancing. To what extent the architecture and spatiality of Vauxhall was a factor in producing the new well-mannered subjectivity is a fertile question to pose, outlined in more depth below.

There are many references to Vauxhall, in both primary and secondary sources, as ‘enchanting’ and ‘bewitching’. This suggests the illusory and provisional nature of the social atmosphere or ethos. Very recently Alice Barnaby (2017) noted that the design of the mirrored interior of the rotunda at Vauxhall, which arrayed reflections of visitors alongside busts of eminent personages, encouraged and rewarded aspirational behaviour.22 Part fantasy, part artwork and part careful technological staging, did such devices help cement and legitimate the emerging bourgeois identity or were they merely examples of recreational identity-play? These are questions that further study into the art, architecture, iconology and spatiality of Vauxhall can help suggest answers to.

Themes for Research

According to Miles Ogborn, the mid eighteenth century experience of Vauxhall pleasure gardens was shaped by a discourse in which enactments of fantasies about consuming luxury and novelty items were held to be a social good.23 From the point of view of art history it is worthwhile asking how the architecture, garden design, and employment of spatiality supported this discourse and made possible the experience. One of the most consistent and enduring features of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens was the supper-box ranges, which persisted from 1735 right up until 1859.24

The design/architecture of the supper-box is such that it marks off the diner/dining party from neighbouring instances, but also exhibits the act of consumption to the gaze of the passer-by. Each supper-box was separated by dividing walls and had room for between six and eight people.25

While Brewer applies Habermas’ Public Sphere theory liberally to Vauxhall26 it is hard to see how the individuating nature of the supper-boxes might have facilitated cross-party discussion, unlike the coffee-houses, salons and tischgesellschaften Habermas had in mind27. The idea of ‘coming together to form a public’ is expressed better in the promenade, ridotto, or as the audience of the various theatrical events. It is clear however that the socially visible act of using a supper-box helped shape a civic, public-facing personality.

Much as the border of a screen or billboard marks off a depiction of a family meal in today’s commercial advertisements, the supper-boxes at Vauxhall allow passers-by to witness not just consumers dining but consumers who are showing that they are consuming. The performative dimension of this conspicuous consumption contributes towards identification as a member of the leisure class, while also serving to advertise the commodities sold at Vauxhall. The dining box functions as a live diorama demonstrating how to enjoy in a social, polite, setting. In Marxist terms the food served and eaten publicly at Vauxhall becomes fetishised. Since it exists not merely for its use value but in order to create and further a market for itself, its exchange-value upon this market takes precedence over its use as sustenance, so that the diner is not simply consuming food but socially exhibiting and helping circulate reified relations.28 To a large extent, the supper-box is a device for the exhibition of both changing social relations to the products of labour and changes in how production itself is motivated. The mechanisms which make this exhibition possible are the design of the dining boxes and the iconology of the Temple of Comus.

Fig. 1: A View of the Temple of Comus in Vauxhall Gardens, 1751, coloured engraving by Johann Sebastian Müller
Fig. 1: A View of the Temple of Comus in Vauxhall Gardens, 1751, coloured engraving by Johann Sebastian Müller based on Canaletto’s work of the same name, height: 37.30 cm, width: 52.10 cm, Government Art Collection (Department for Digital, Cultural Media & Sport), available at Accessed 02-02-2018

After the work of Stalybras and White, David Solkin has addressed how public eating and drinking in Vauxhall were framed in ways designed to suppress those ‘problems’ of Bahktinian carnivalesque and the grotesque body common in the alehouses.29 According to Bahktin’s classic formulation, the overlap of high and low culture in the festivities of carnival permits the breaching of taboos, a series of social inversions, and the visibility of the grotesque body: in which culture and nature are seen as no longer neatly partitioned but blend and interpenetrate each other, composed of orifices not of discrete and refined consumption but of fertility and flatulence.30 The architecture of the dining box can easily be read as a response to this problematic. The boxes sat within a colonnade peristyle with a series of Corinthian or Composite columns meeting the entablature (Fig. 1). While exhibiting the dining party to a public gaze, this design no less constrains and partitions each party from the next; each party has its own table, and is flanked by columns which set off the view from outside. The seriality of the scene of consumption imposes discretion and prevents group fusion between neighbouring parties, thus impeding the formation of the kind of carnivalesque-grotesque sociability so familiar in the paintings of Bosch and Brueghel.

The supper-boxes can be compared to a series of small theatres, the table and columns of each serving as stage and proscenium. In such a formulation, the lower body of the patrons, who face outwards, are concealed from view, and the actor ‘on’ the stage consists in the relationship between the upper body and the comestibles. This emphasises and exhibits the relationship of consumption (relationships with the lower body, such as digestion, evacuation, and sexual arousal, are ‘off the table’ with respect to what polite society might visualise). Furthermore, it can be held that the theatricality of the design, together with social custom, conspired to constitute a ‘fourth wall’ between passers-by and the dining party, such that interaction between them was restricted to its visual component; presumably they did not talk to each other but respected the boundaries of each other’s activity. Passers-by may have caught the smell of the food however, and this would constitute another way in which the design of the booths allowed the diners to serve as live advertisements, exploiting food’s own natural appeals to the appetite.

Fig 2: Detail, from Fig. 1, showing the use of Corinthian/Composite architectural order for the supper-boxes.
Fig 2: Detail, from Fig. 1, showing the use of Corinthian/Composite architectural order for the supper-boxes.

It is apparent that the architecture of the supper-boxes used either the Corinthian or Composite order (Fig. 2). The personifications of the Corinthian range from ‘slight figure of a girl’, ‘viriginal’, to ‘lascivious… decked like a wanton courtesan’, but it was invariably seen as female.31 While the Composite Order ‘is sometimes chosen because the architect wants to lay it on thick – luxury, opulence, no expense spared’; in either case these are the direct opposites of the tough and austere soldierly bearing of the Tuscan and Doric order.32 The capitals of the Corinthian and Composite columns, as standardised by Andrea Palladio in his Quattro Libri, feature stylised acanthus, olive-leaves and sometimes pomegranates; neoclassicism associated the order with buildings for worship such as temples which were required to more ostentatiously express grandeur and magnificence.33 The capitals’ organic forms highlight and celebrate the scene of consumption in the supper-boxes. Contrast the use of the Doric order for the portico and columns of the Prince of Wales Pavilion behind ‘the Grove’ area. Here, at the centre of the gardens, in an arena where musicians played to the crowd and the latter were expected to be attentive and orderly in their behaviour, the Doric order with its traditionally male and ‘soldierly’, less ornate, less monumental and more severe character expressed a greater degree of restraint.34

Until 1751, the curved colonnade of the supper-boxes abut an architectural feature called the ‘Temple of Comus’, celebrating the late classical deity which Ben Jonson had portrayed a century earlier as ‘first father of sauce and deviser of jelly’ – a portly and jovial patron of good cheer. This was from a masque tellingly entitled Pleasure reconciled to Virtue.35 The unstable and ambiguous balance struck between libidinally-charged appetites and moral restraint by the Temple of Comus was probably further threatened by alternative readings of the figure. Many of Thomas Arne’s musical pieces were performed at Vauxhall, and Comus would have been a recognisable figure to theatre-going Londoners from Arne’s Comus, which was a popular success at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 1738.36 In this incarnation (based on Milton’s Maske presented at Ludlow Castle), Comus is a sorcerer whose potions when imbibed cause travellers to lose themselves in pleasure, their faces taking on bestial forms. Comus is thus a surprisingly ambiguous figure to invoke next to the supper-boxes. Arne’s adaptation of Maske was in all likelihood the most well-known instance of Comus, yet took as its source a ‘masque against masquing’ expressing Milton’s theological theme of good and evil as a moral battle between forbearance and revelry.37 For the new owner Tyer, the importance of dispelling a lewd and vulgar ethos had to be carefully weighed against also producing a culture in which conspicuous consumption was encouraged as a genteel and civic practice. In point of fact, The Temple of Comus was a brilliant example of what semiotics calls ‘double coding’.38 For those who expected public enjoyment to be discrete and refined in line with Christian virtues, the figure of Comus (especially when considered in concert with the lead statue of Milton north of the supper-boxes)39 could serve as a reminder of the moral perils of overindulgence. For a more secular public, less anxious about the moral implications, Comus just as equally signified an ethos and aesthetics of Epicurean delight and cheer.

Conlin and Corfield agree that the public visited Vauxhall to observe itself – ‘to see and be seen’ – as much as the gardens and its features.40 By doing so contemporary fashions and the habits of public comportment could reflexively constitute themselves and ‘catch on’, granting practitioners membership of an exclusive group constituted less by bloodlines and heredity and more by deliberate participation. In a less aspirational vein, the illusionism inherent in aspects of Vauxhall’s ridotto/masquerade, which included male cross-dressing (witch, fishwife, madwoman) as well as Commedia dell’Arte characters and religious garb, has been covered by Aileen Ribeiro.41

A promenade alongside the strings of supper-boxes, such as that along the part of the Grand South Walk that precedes the Triumphant Arches (Fig. 3), is an organisation of space that scripts the simultaneity of fashionable promenading with visible consumption. Some parties walk, others dine, and while the two activities do not directly interact, their adjacency guarantees that they are indeed varieties of the overall experience of pleasure to be found in the gardens.

Fig. 3: The Grand South Walk in Vauxhall Gardens, with the Triumphal Arches, Mr Handels Statue &c, 1750-55, Robert Sayer
Fig. 3: The Grand South Walk in Vauxhall Gardens, with the Triumphal Arches, Mr Handels Statue &c, 1750-55, Robert Sayer, print, paper, etching, height: 174 mm, width: 276 mm (trimmed), British Museum (Prints & Drawings department), Registration number 1880,1113.5478.1

Not a great deal has been written about the Walks of Vauxhall as uses of space. To begin to address this it is necessary to theorise promenading as a practice. In an increasingly commercial society which encourages self-objectification, our immediate intuitions home in on ideas about social visibility, catwalks, and the display of fashion. However, these intuitions belong most to late capitalism. It can be proposed that promenading would have been an activity belonging to the sphere of gesture, as defined by Giorgio Agamben. The sphere of gestures or ‘pure means’ is ‘the sphere of those means that emancipated themselves from their relation to an end while still remaining means’.42 In other words a gesture is a means employed without orientation towards its usual end. However, gestures are then captured by an apparatus (after Foucault’s dispositif) which redirect them towards some purpose, for example: study, or exhibition.43 According to Agamben, the proliferation of types of apparatus had eroded the sphere of gesture by the 19th century.44 Dancing can be considered gestural when it is defined as movement of the body for no other purpose than the exercise of the possibility – a means without end. However, the apparatus of visuality – any kind of valorizing gaze – captures it, and dancing then transforms into something exhibited to that gaze. Similarly, walking is ordinarily a means to get somewhere, but to promenade upon Vauxhall’s Walks is a use of space that is not geared towards reaching a particular destination. In the case of Vauxhall, the gesture of promenading is captured by the social visibility offered by the long, straight, tree-lined gravel paths, which mark off the Walks as aesthetic spaces.45 Promenading on these Walks together or alone is then something done to exhibit presence to an aesthetic gaze, thus granting identification as a member of a special community (of those who walk the Grand Walk of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens). To be sure we can regard this as a forerunner of the fashion catwalk, but there are significant social, spatial and environmental differences. The music is both orchestrated and natural (nightingales are mentioned everywhere in primary sources), the airflow is not machine-controlled but caused by winds and climate, and the sound of crunching gravel accompanies every step. It is a particularly out-of-doors experience, a bubble of the rustic contained in the urban, and still bears a trace of the Arcadian about it. We can conclude that the promenade at this point is not as yet a completely commodified practice.

Citations and References

1 Borsay 1989

2 Conlin 2012:3; Corfield 2008

3 Barnaby 2017:75

4 Conlin 2012:5,23; Hunt in Conlin 2012:29

5 Greig at Tate Britain 2008; Hunter at Tate Britain 2008; Corfield 2008

6 Joncus at Tate Britain 2008

7 Symes at Tate Britain 2008

8 Hughes in Conlin 2012:78-99

9 Hunt in Conlin 2012:29-48

10 Conlin 2006:718-743

11 Cowgill in Conlin 2012:100-126

12 Borsay in Conlin 2012:49-77; Barnaby 2017:71-99

13 Brewer at Tate Britain 2008

14 Symes at Tate Britain 2008

15 Barnaby at Tate Britain 2008; Nord in Conlin 2012:177-194; Barnaby 2017:71-99

16 Brewer 200; Greig 2012:51

17 Greig 2012:50-75; Borsay in Conlin 2012

18 Borsay in Conlin 2012:67

19 Solkin 1992:114-115

20 Corfield 2008:13; Ogborn 1998:120

21 Habermas 1989; Goodman 1994; Carveri 2005; Calhoun 2012

22 Barnaby 2017:76

23 Ogborn 1998

24 Coke & Borg 2011:417

25 Corfield 2008:10

26 Brewer 1995:341-61

27 Habermas 1989:30-31; Cowan 2005; Ellis 2004 ; Goodman 1994 ; Carveri 2005 ; Calhoun 2012

28 Marx 1990:125-178

29 Stalybras and White 1986; Solkin 1992:118-126

30 Bahktin 1993

31 Summerson 1980:14-15; Tzonis & Lefaivre 1986:42

32 Summerson 1980:15

33 Palladio 2002:216

34 Summerson 1980:15

35 Johnson 1641

36 Parkinson 2002

37 Britannica Academic 2011

38 Oxford Reference 2011

39 Coke & Borg 2011:419

40 Conlin 2012:1; Corfield 2008:4

41 Ribeiro at Tate Britain 2008

42 Agamben 2000:preface, 49-62

43 Agamben 2009:1-24

44 Agamben 2000:49 & 52

45 Ogborn 1998:120


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David J Smith

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