Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Jonathan Tyers and the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens
In the mid 18th century, Jonathan Tyers became best known for making the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens into a spectacular success that lasted another hundred years. Under his ownership the gardens went from a fairly average recreation area on the south bank of the Thames, to the place to visit. From the sensational lighting to orchestral music, from plays to wooded walks, under his stewardship Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens became the haunt of everyone from the Prince of Wales to the common man. His creative innovations were ahead of their time, as was his canny instinct for marketing and publicity. Tyers achievements were many, but what interests us today is the man behind the hype.
Jonathan Tyers relaxing with his family
            Tyers was born in 1702, into a family of leatherworkers – dealing in hides and skins.  Perhaps he was ashamed of his humble roots because a recurrent theme during his life was raising his social status from tradesman to gentry. Indeed, Tyers was adept at reinventing not only the gardens –but himself.
Roubiliac's bust of Tyers
            At the age of just 27 Tyers acquired the lease for the Spring Gardens at Vauxhall (later renamed the Vauxhall Gardens) for an annual rent of £250. Over the next thirty years he bought out the lease, finally owning the gardens in 1758. A shrew business man with a talent for advertising, Tyers used the talents of eminent artists and musicians of the day. He enlisted William Hogarth to design season tickets, and Handel to compose music for the gardens. Some of his marketing techniques included having a special barge sail up and down the Thames, with musicians on deck playing Handel’s new pieces – to be played at the gardens that night. 
The Grand Walk, Vauxhall, in its heyday
            Tyers hung hundreds of lanterns (an unthinkably extravagant number in the 18th century) from trees lining the walks. Not content with illuminating the gardens, he developed a revolutionary technique of lighting the lanterns, all at the same time – a sight akin to magic in the 1750’s. This rouse was such a success that people flocked to the gardens – just to see the lights being switched on.
            But what of Tyers himself? He married a woman, Elizabeth, two years older than him and already a widow. Evidently, she was a woman of character and positivity, because, when in old age the house was burgled and a considerable amount of silver stolen – instead of complaining she marveled at the skill of the thieves in breaking in without waking anyone.
I took this photo, in a spot approximating to the view above.
The Grand Walk (?!) in the modern day
            Tyers was renowned for having a changeable character. For periods of time he was highly motivated and creative, but this alternated with periods of withdrawal and profound melancholia when he became suicidal. It has been postulated he may have suffered from a psychological condition such as bipolar disorder.
            Under Tyer’s ownership from 1729 to his death in 1767, Vauxhall became the haunt of the fashionable elite – from royalty to dukes, landowners and merchants. For the admission cost of one shilling, the visitor had the exciting prospect of rubbing shoulders with the celebrities of the day.
The site of Vauxhall Gardens in the modern day.
Note the Shard in the background
            Tyers was passionate about Vauxhall right up until his death in 1767. When he was terminally ill, he insisted on being carried through the gardens to say farewell to the place he loved so much. He died at his house in the gardens on 1 July aged 65. He left behind a widow, two daughters and two sons (the younger of which took over the running of the gardens). Jonathan was buried in a churchyard near his family home in Bermondsey.  The grave  was not marked and the only commemoration to his life now existing is in the street names around the site of the old Vauxhall.

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