If you were a fashionable 18th c. Londoner, you knew all about Ranelagh Gardens, on the river in Chelsea.
First opened in 1741, Ranelagh featured not only extensive gardens and paths for strolling, but also the extravagant Rotunda, left, a large amphitheater with an orchestra stand in the center, surrounded by a circular dance floor, and surrounded by balconies for drinking and dining.
The Rotunda was one of the most visible landmarks of Georgian London, and proudly identified as sharing the same size and proportions of the Pantheon in Rome (although I have to admit that to my modern eyes, the famous dome looks a great deal like a 20th c baseball park.) There were also artificial lakes and canals and a Chinese pavilion. With an admission charge of two shillings and sixpence, Ranelagh was considered exclusive enough to attract the aristocracy, and clearly outshone Vauxhall Garden, its nearby rival.
But as famous as the Rotunda might be, the real attraction of Ranelagh were the visitors themselves. People came to see and be seen. The masquerades at Ranelagh, right, were especially popular, when the assumed identity of a costume and a mask could lead to all kinds of diverting mischief. Costumes could be elegantly genteel like this oneworn by the Duchess of Ancaster – the Rotunda is in the background – or as revealing as this, worn by the scandalous Elizabeth Chudleigh, future Duchess of Kingston.
In fact most visitors regarded Ranelagh's main purpose to be romance and intrigue. The hero and heroine of my new historical romance, When the Duchess Said Yes, first meet under the stars at a Ranelagh masquerade. They would have had plenty of company, too. Historian Edward Gibbon (1753-1794) famously described Ranelagh in a letter to his step-mother in 1768:
"Ranelagh is indeed opened [for the season]....Notwithstanding the brilliancy of the first moment, I must own I think it very soon grows insipid to a by-stander, or by-walker if you like it better. I acknowledge it indeed the most convenient place for courtships of every kind. It is certainly the best market we have in England. Lord Abingdon is just going to make a pretty considerable purchase, of Miss Warren, Mrs. Fitzroy's sister. The Lord wants money, the Lady a title, so that as the bargain seems advantageous to both parties we apprehend it will speedily be concluded."
While this sounds a bit mercenary, there's no denying the romance of Ranelagh Gardens. Imagine a warm spring evening, the Rotunda, left, glowing like a giant lantern (as it was popularly described), the music from the orchestra drifting on the breeze, and you strolling arm in arm with a handsome masked gentleman beneath the trees. . . .
Above left: The Chinese House, the Rotunda, and Company in Masquerade, by T. Bowles, 1754. Right: Venetian Masquerade at Ranelagh, April 26th, 1749. Below left: Ranelagh Rotunda by Moonlight, watercolor, artist unknown. All images courtesy of The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Library, with thanks to David Walker, Local Studies librarian. Check out the library's excellent blog, The Library Time Machine - a TNHG favorite. For more, see our Pinterest boards on London's 18th-19th c. Pleasure Gardens and Fancy Dress & Masquerade Costumes.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.