01/07/2013 12:12 BST | Updated 31/08/2013 06:12 BST

Jonathan Tyers and The Garden of Death


Both the success of the Museum of London's recent Pleasure Gardens exhibition, and the establishment of the worthy but ill-fated London Pleasure Garden at Royal Victoria Dock suggest that there is some vestige of nostalgia in the city's collective consciousness for the magical entertainments of its rich past.

I am constantly delighted by the determination of the movers and shakers of 18th Century London society to have fun, and to live life on their own terms. Men and women with money and vision had no compunction about making their fantasies a reality, or allowing their private obsessions free expression in the physical world. One chap who definitely did not hold back on this score was Jonathan Tyers, the proprietor of Vauxhall Gardens.

Tyers (1702-1767) acquired the lease to Vauxhall Gardens in 1728, and transformed what had formerly been known as Spring Gardens into an extraordinary attraction, filled with orchestral music by towering talents such as Handel and the young Mozart, Gothic and Chinese architecture, supper boxes, triumphal arches, caged song-birds, the illumination afforded by a thousand oil lamps, grand walks for promenading, and set-dressing by eminent artists such as Hogarth and Roubiliac. There was even an artificial waterfall, a music room 70 feet in diameter, and a Turkish Tent boasting twenty columns. Not for nothing was Tyers dubbed 'The Master Builder of Delight'. Vauxhall attracted royalty, the nobility and gentry, celebrities, famous beauties, and those who came just to gawp. It became the fashionable venue in which to see and be seen.

For all the success that Tyers enjoyed with Vauxhall, however, there seems to have been a puritanical side to his character that was troubled by the frivolities of the pleasure garden he had created. In 1734, he purchased the two-storey house, Denbies, near Dorking in Surrey, and set about turning it into his country retreat. His vision for the house was unremarkable, but the plans he had for the estate were rather more elaborate and macabre.

Tyers seems to have been a little obsessed with John Milton. He named a building at Vauxhall The Temple of Comus after the poet's celebrated pagan character, and he called his woodland at Denbies Il Penseroso, after Milton's work of the same name. This was an exploration of poetic melancholy, eschewing all 'vain deluding joys'. Tyers stuffed the woodland with many a memento mori, including a Temple of Death, which held a sculpture of a white raven, and copies of two depressing books chained to a lectern. These were long poems by Robert Blair and Edward Young. Blair's The Grave is on the subjects of cemeteries, the physical horrors of the tomb, human transience, and the imponderability of death. Young's Night Thoughts is an equally gloomy work that laments human frailty, and muses upon death and the loss of the poet's wife and friends. Young gave us the expression 'procrastination is the thief of time'. The Temple also contained a memorial to a deceased botanist and garden designer, sculpted by Roubiliac, and a clock that chimed once a minute to remind visitors of their mortality.

Near the Temple was a gateway that led to The Valley of the Shadow of Death, containing a building that had two upright coffins forming its entrance, on top of which were the skulls of a highwayman and a prostitute. Inside the building was another statue by Roubiliac, showing the figure of Truth crushing the Mask of Illusion underfoot, and paintings of a Christian dying with a gentle angel in attendance, and an Unbeliever about to be impaled on a spear brandished by a figure of Death, emerging from billowing clouds.

What was the purpose of Tyers's morbid creation? Was it a three-dimensional statement of affiliation with the fashionable melancholy prevailing in the Enlightenment? An elaborate joke? Or did Tyers think he would redeem himself in the eyes of his Maker by offsetting the vanities of Vauxhall Gardens with a physical acknowledgement of the mutability of all flesh? If so, he would have discovered how successful he had been in 1767, when he died at the Proprietor's House, Spring Gardens. Denbies was sold, and the new owners eventually dismantled the oddities of Tyers's Garden of Death.

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