Francis Hayman's supper-box paintings at Vauxhall
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.''Skip to next paragraph
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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.''