The Circus

The Circus

Pp 305-308

18th C

When Assembly rooms and pleasure gardens were introduced to cities and spa towns young Georgian gentle-women in their late teens were permitted to walk in town and stroll through public parks and gardens with a friend, or accompanied by a servant during the day. They were allowed to travel in a similar fashion in hackney coaches without upsetting mama unduly.

There were, of course, various means by which girls like the Gainsborough daughters on their return from boarding school in London were kept aloof from the rougher elements of society in public places like the pleasure gardens and horse racing. The cost of ticketed-entry-only events required for specific attractions - charity benefis for example - held in the pleasure gardens in Bath virtually excluded the lower classes on these occasions, while maintaining the preferred status of those attending. After dark, of course, young women were closely chaperoned by family members. Nevertheless there were occasions which permitted genteel young ladies glimpses of the ways of another world which set their imaginations working. They were by no means coy in commenting (at least in their correspondence with one another) on matters of a decidedly sexual nature.

The popular pleasure gardens in London and Bath offered entertainment of all kinds: classical temples, elabrately lit set pieces employing thousands of candles and torches, magicians and clowns, acrobats, orchestras and bands playing for dancing, maybe a concert followed by supper served in decorated arbours set among the trees, all held late at night. In London when the Gainsborough family moved there in 1774 no-one of any importance arrived at the fashionable Vauxhall Gardens on the south bank until midnight.

The Vauxhall Gardens were the leading pleasure gardens in the country. Highly popular for the three summer months these Gardens attracted frequent return visits by most of the nobility: King George III and his large family were often to be seen there. As a consequence, it was important for anyone with aspirations to be seen there too. All were entertained with the sweet song of "numbers of nightingales," their music competing with the best orchestras in England. Fine pavilions designed by leading architects and decorated by well-known artists were furnished with cosy dining alcoves serving a wide variety of food and drink. There were shady groves to be explored, arbours decorated with gigantic sculptured figures, delightful walks among groves of trees illuminated by more than a thousand lamps whch were lit mechanically, as if by magic, offering a line of living flame at a given hour.

Benjamin Franklin's son William was swept away by his first visit in 1752, writing to a friend in America that he could dwell for hours on the "enchanting scenes at Vauxhall" which were "unbelievably beautiful," a more or less universal reaction from the thousands of visitors who attended: no less than six thousand people paid a hefty entry fee to be part of a special celebratory event held on the night of 19th May 1786. Was the Gaisnborough family among them?