Dancing to the lively sounds of the Africa stage at the River of Music festival on Saturday evoked happy memories. The infectious rythms and energy of the performances at London Pleasure Gardens, in the shadow of the ExCeL centre, reminded me of the happy sounds I heard last summer as I travelled with friends across East Africa by bus.
Artists from across the African continent, notably Niger and Senegal for the main acts, entertained the crowd assembled in front of a giant stage at the 25,000 capacity venue at Pontoon Dock, East London this weekend.
It is an amazing place, spread across 20 acres and encompassing several indoor, festival style tents, alongside the outdoor performance stage. According to the website, in addition to hosting numerous events over the next three years, London Pleasure Gardens will also run projects that the local community can get involved in.
But what intrigued me was the use of the pleasure gardens descriptor in the name. Are the organisers of this pop-up arts complex trying to re-create the venues of 300 years where people used to listen to live classical music, where they strolled along tree-lined walks, admired fine art, drank and ate? Given that the organisers of London Pleasure Gardens provide a brief history of pleasure gardens I guess they are.
Vauxhall Gardens, open from 1661 to 1859 and probably the most famous in the capital, is the subject of a new exhibition at the Foundling Museum. Entertaining up to 100,000 people a year, they gave people from all walks if like the chance to experience art by William Hogarth, specially composed music by George Frederic Handel and al fresco dining.
Visiting the exhibition today, I was fascinated by a model showing the Vauxhall Gardens in its hey day (the main focus of the displays is a prosperous period dating from 1729 to 1786). Musicians play in lavish orchestra pavilions, well dressed people stroll along the grand walk, while other patrons dine with friends in covered supper boxes.
The wonderful Foundling Museum, which tells the story of retired captain Thomas Coram and the home he founded for babies from poor families, already features extensive displays on Vauxhall Gardens because the two institutions shared benefactors (the two venues are engraved on opposite sides of an on display Chinese porcelain bowl from the 1750s). But this exhibition goes much further at capturing the richness of the 18th venue – prints depict the efforts that patrons went in dressing to impress for example.
While Vauxhall Gardens was beautifully designed, with symmetrical walks for example, the backdrop to the London Pleasure Gardens at Pontoon Dock is less spectacular, with take away food vans, hardly fine dining, lining the perimeter. And entering from the DLR station, the route in is far from picturesque.
The rough round the edges nature of London Pleasure Gardens which looks to modern art is in stark contrast to the classically inspired Georgian Vauxhall Gardens featuring stunning architecture and paintings by Hogarth
So what are the similarities between the two? Both are away from the hustle and bustle of the City, created in undeveloped spaces. And they give people the opportunity to experience top class entertainment in an informal setting; it cost just a shilling to enter in the 18th Century and yesterday I paid just £3 in admission. But then, as now, the owners made the venues profitable through the food and drink. At Vauxhall there were complaints about wafer thin, expensive ham and small roast chickens, for example and some would argue that the stalls at Pontoon Dock were overpriced (I paid £5.50 for a burger, without any chips).
I am a big fan of London Pleasure Gardens, it is a fantastic venue for Londoners to enjoy and I regognise that it is for a different world to that that went to Vauxhall Gardens. But still, they are classes apart.