Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Romance of Ranelagh Gardens, c. 1760

Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Isabella reporting:

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 one worn 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.


Jenna said...

Romance indeed! I can't imagine how much fun such an outing would have been, especially, as you describe it, on the arm of a masked gentleman. Ranelagh sounds much more romantic than Vauxhall, especially given the painting of it by moonlight.

Wonderful post, Isabella. And congratulations on your release!

Romance Author, Donna Hatch said...

Wow! I have never heard of Ranelagh! I've heard of Vauxhall Garden but this one is new to me. Has it, like Vauxhall Gardens, vanished, or can one still see it?

Margaret Porter said...

The grounds are still there, but none of the buildings. It resembles a part. There's a small photo on my website here
the very first one under "Outdoor Delights."

Margaret Porter said...

I meant to type "park."

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

As Margaret noted (thank you, Margaret!) most of Ranelagh Gardens vanished long ago. The last big evening was in 1804, and the Gardens as an attraction closed after that. The Rotunda was torn down in 1805.

Vauxhall had a longer life, lasting well into the 1850s by adapting to the times. Instead of offering just a pleasant shadowy retreat for shenanigans, plus music, dancing, and dining, Vauxhall evolved into a special event venue, with balloon launches, acrobats, and fireworks displays. But gradually it, too, became too tawdry for Victorian tastes, and closed. Here's the sad poster for its final sale:

Carmen Izquierdo Diaz Ruiz said...

The gardens are still there. They are a peaceful and beautiful spot full of Character

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