IN his work, ``Life of Johnson,'' James Boswell, that master of the informative aside, takes a moment away from his main subject to sing the praises of ``that excel-lent place of publick amusement, Vauxhall Gardens,'' so ``peculiarly adapted to the taste of the English nation.'' These pleasure gardens were situated just south of the River Thames, almost opposite what is now the Tate Gallery. Boswell described them as ``a mixture . . . of curious show, gay exhibition, musick, vocal and instrumental, not too refined for the general ear; - for all of which only a shilling is paid; and, though last, not least, good eating and drinking for those who choose to purchase that regale.''
Amusingly, he added a muttering footnote after the summer of 1792, when ``additional and more expensive decorations'' were introduced and ``the price of admission was raised to two shillings.'' He wrote, ``I cannot approve of this. The company may be more select; but a number of the honest commonalty are, I fear, excluded from sharing in elegant and innocent entertainment.''
In a watercolor of 1784, and an aquatint printed after it in 1785, the ebullient satirist and recorder of London life Thomas Rowlandson had depicted Vauxhall and its habitu'es. Beneath the trees a crowd of celebrities (and one or two that might well fit the title ``commonalty'') are being treated to a recital by a singer, Mrs. Weichsel, who is issuing her dulcet tones from a balcony. In comic competition, a band lets rip - trumpeters blaring - from another balcony just behind her. Under it is an ogee arch. And below that, seated at a table and tucking into the ``regale'' with hearty relish, are to be found Dr. Johnson with his friends Boswell, Goldsmith, and Mrs. Thrale. Caricatured rather mischievously, they are in full occupation of their supper box.
It is a shame that Rowlandson only showed an indeterminate, shadowy interior behind these famous diners. Perhaps he didn't want to complicate his design. But on the walls of more than 50 supper boxes at Vauxhall were hung painted decorations. These canvases were the work of, or at least were painted after drawings by, Francis Hayman (1708-76).
Hayman produced the supper-box paintings in response to a commission from Jonathan Tyers. Tyers (whom Hayman also portrayed at home with his family in one of his ``conversation pieces'') had acquired the lease of Vauxhall Gardens in 1728. He had improved it - improvement was needed because, since its beginning in the 1660s, the place had fallen on bad times - into the reputable nightspot Boswell was to like so much.
Today, very few of Hayman's original supper-box paintings survive, and most are much the worse for repainting and wear and weather. It was also reported that the ``commonalty,'' however ``honest,'' did not always resist the temptation to finger them. And anyway, they were not exactly treasures in a museum, but the inevitably vulnerable d'ecor of a very public place.
Vauxhall eventually closed in 1841, and some of the paintings were sold at auction then. Others had disappeared even earlier.
Brian Allen in his excellent catalog to the recent exhibition of Hayman's work (at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn., and at the Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, London) calls the subject matter of the supper-box paintings ``distinct and remarkably novel...; children's games; scenes from popular plays and contemporary novels; rural traditions and popular pastimes.''
Hayman depicted such things as skittles, ``hunt the whistle,'' flying kites, angling, ``the cutting of flour,'' and sliding on the ice. The themes were mainly youthful, as might be expected in a place of entertainment. But less expectedly, perhaps, some of the pictures seem to have carried deliberately pointed morals.
IN style they were influenced by French rococo - by artists like Watteau, Fragonard, or Lancret - and were consequently lighthearted, decorative, and theatrical. Though Hayman was to develop later in his career into a serious historical painter, he had, in fact, started out as a theatrical designer. On one occasion he had even painted scenes at the Drury Lane Theatre for ``a New Entertainment after the manner of Spring Gardens, Vaux-hall, with a scene representing the place.'' So he had been familiar with Vauxhall for a number of years before he painted its supper-box pictures.
Today, about the only way to find out what many of these decorations were like is to look at Hayman's surviving preparatory drawings or at the prints that were made after some of the final paintings.
``Battledore and Shuttlecock'' is still here in Hayman's drawing - squared for transfer to canvas - and also in an engraving by R.Parr. It is an enchanting depiction of an indoor game. In the engraving an extra chair appears on the left, presumably because this area seemed too empty in the large painting or the composition looked too unbalanced. But the drawing has the freshness of observation: The furniture in the classically simple 18th-century interior has been, realistically enough, drawn to one side to allow for the boisterous, if decorous, energies of the sport.
``May Day or the Dance of the Milkmaids'' shows, with deftness, two May Day customs that continued from an earlier time into the 18th century. To the left, young chimney sweeps beat their brushes and shovels. This ``music'' provides the rhythm section for the fiddler, who obligingly accompanies the London milkmaids as they perform their traditional May Day dance.
The note in Dr. Allen's catalog quotes from an essay in The Spectator: ``It is likewise on the first Day of the Month that we see the ruddy Milk-Maid exerting herself in a most sprightly manner under a Pyramid of Silver Tankards....'' These tankards were borrowed for the occasion and ``hung round the milk-pails, with the additions of flowers and ribbands.'' The milkmaids went round the houses of their customers with these elaborate trophies on their heads and hoped for small tips.
HAYMAN has turned the occasion into a pretty piece of theatricality, with some nice contrasts to give the subject additional charm: The sooty blackness of the chimney sweeps makes the dresses of the maids seem as clean as fresh milk; the buxomness of the maid on the right (more as one would imagine a real milk-maid, perhaps), the obliging youth carrying the tankards, and even the attentive fiddler seem immobilized in comparison with the skinny lasses who ``trip it as [they] go/ On the light fantastic toe.''
In the case of his ``May Day'' decoration for Vauxhall, not only has the actual painting survived unusually intact, but so has a small painted copy of it. This is the picture shown here. Belonging to the Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, in Hampstead, North London, it is thought by Allen to have been made as guidance for the engraver Charles Grignion, whose engraving also survives until today. He even believes that Grignion may have painted the picture himself.
Despite such complications, all the versions of ``May Day'' attest to a delightful idea, enchantingly realized.