Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pleasure Gardens

On May 26, 1742, Horace Walpole writes to Horace Mann, in part describing his visit to Ranelagh Gardens, in Chelsea.  Ranelagh had opened just two days prior, one of several pleasure gardens opened around this time. 

'To Sir Horace Mann
Downing Street, May 26, 1742.

To-day calls itself May the 26th, as you perceive by the date; but I am writing to you by the fireside, instead of going to Vauxhall.  if we have one warm day in seven, "we bless our stars, and think it luxury."  And yet we have as much waterworks and fresco diversions, as if we lay ten degrees nearer warmth.  Two nights ago Ranelagh-gardens were opened at Chelsea; the Prince, Princess, Duke, much nobility, and much mob besides, were there.  There is a vast amphitheatre, finely gilt, painted, and illuminated, into which every body that loves eating,drinking, staring, or crowding, is admitted for twelvepence.  The building and disposition of the gardens cost sixteen thousand pounds.  Twice a-week there are to be ridottos, at guinea tickets, for which you are to have a supper and music.  I was there last night, but did not find the joy of it.  Vauxhall is a little better; for the garden is pleasanter, and one goes by water...'

Walpole knew gardens well, and in the passage above he mentions his preference for Vauxhall over Ranalagh.  Walpole published his "Essay on Gardening" in 1780, and it became the standard by which others are measured.  Sir Walter Scott mentions the work in "Redgauntlet": 

'I will not trouble you with any account of the various hothouses and gardens, and their contents. No small sum of money must have been expended be erecting and maintaining them in the exquisite degree of good order which they exhibited. The family, I understood, were connected with that of the celebrated Millar, and had imbibed his taste for flowers and for horticulture. But instead of murdering botanical names, I will rather conduct you to the policy, or pleasure-garden, which the taste of Joshua or his father had extended on the hanks betwixt the noose and river. This also, in contradistinction to the prevailing simplicity, was ornamented in an unusual degree. There were various compartments, the connexion of which was well managed, and although the whole ground did not exceed five or six acres, it was so much varied as to seem four times larger. The space contained close alleys and open walks; a very pretty artificial waterfall; a fountain also, consisting of a considerable jet-d'eau, whose streams glittered in the sunbeams, and exhibited a continual rainbow. There was a cabinet of verdure, as the French call it, to cool the summer heat, and that was a terrace sheltered from the north-east by a noble holly hedge, with all its glittering spears, where you might have the full advantage of the sun in the clear frosty days of winter.

I know that you, Alan, will condemn all this as bad and antiquated; for, ever since Dodsley has described the Leasowes, and talked of Brown's imitations of nature, and Horace Walpole's late Essay on Gardening, you are all for simple nature—Condemn walking up and down stairs in the open air, and declare for wood and wilderness. But ne quid nimis. I would not deface a scene of natural grandeur or beauty, by the introduction of crowded artificial decorations; yet such may, I think, be very interesting, where the situation in its natural state, otherwise has no particular charms...'

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