London, Volume 1

Knight, Charles




It were a curious study to trace the progress of the public taste in matters of amusement, and to endeavour to investigate the causes of the variety of changes it has undergone. The latter, however, would, we suspect, be a difficult task to accomplish satisfactorily. Take, for instance, the once prosperous as well as famous places of entertainment mentioned at the head of this paper-and how should we explain the fact that has long since disappeared, whilst the other, having made bankrupts of its latest proprietors, is now about, most probably, to give place to the formidable array of bricklayers and carpenters, who already look upon its beautiful groves as their own, and can neither listen to the melodies of the birds nor to the glorious harmonies of the mightier human performers, for the ringing blows of the axe and the crash of the falling trees, which they hear as it were by anticipation? We shall regret this destruction, if be destroyed, as we regret the fall of Ranelagh, were it only for the length of time both places have existed, and the agreeable link they made between ourselves and the generations that have passed away; but they have claims to favourable remembrance of a more important character. What reader of Addison, of Fielding, of Goldsmith, or of Johnson, but will miss the place they have so often visited for materials to minister to our instruction and delight? What lover of the beautiful but would like still to be able to look upon that spot (Ranelagh) which the author of the


said presented the finest he had ever seen; or to keep the other, whilst it is yet possible, of which a forgotten poet of the


last century, with a pleasant spirit of exaggeration, gives so high an origin?--he supposes Eden to have been borne up undestroyed by the Flood, and that-

After floating many a year,

At length it fix'd, and settled here :

that is to say, at .

Ranelagh derived its name from the Earl of Ranelagh, who about built himself a house and laid out extensive grounds on a piece of land lying eastward of the Royal Hospital of , to which it ,originally belonged. After the Earl's death, in , the mansion passed into the hands of his daughter. In the estate was sold in lots, when Lacy, the patentee of , in conjunction with a person named Rietti, took a lease of the premises, with a view of establishing a place of amusement of an extent and magnificence previously unknown to the citizens of London. But the design was too gigantic for the means of its authors; accordingly the property was divided into shares, and Ranelagh soon appeared in all its splendour. The great feature of the place was the Rotunda, a building which excited the astonishment of all visitors by its extraordinary size, its elegance, and its most ingenious and skilful adaptation to the purposes for which it was built. In

Hughson's History of London,

[n.398.1]  a minute but prolix description of this edifice, and of the place generally, is preserved, from which it appears that the Rotunda was a structure somewhat resembling the Pantheon at Rome. The external diameter was feet, the internal . The entrances were by Doric porticos opposite each other, and the story was rustic. Round the whole on the outside was an arcade, and over it a gallery, the stairs to which were in the porticos. The gallery was sheltered by a slated covering, which projected from the body of the Rotunda. Over the gallery were the windows, in number; and over them the immense roof. The thing that struck the spectator in the inside was what was formerly the orchestra, but afterwards called the fireplace, erected in the middle of the Rotunda, reaching to the ceiling and supporting the roof; but it being found too high to give the company the full entertainment of the music, the performers were removed into another orchestra, erected in the space of the porticos. The former, however, remained. It was a beautiful structure, formed by triumphal arches of the Doric order, divided from each other by proper intervals, which, with the arches, formed an octagon. The pillars were divided into stories, the base of each lined with looking-glass, against which were placed patent lamps. These pillars were the principal support of the roof, which, for size and manner of construction, was not to be equalled in Europe. The genius of the architect was here concealed from view by the ceiling; but it may be easily conceived that such a roof could not be supported by any ordinary methods; and if the timber-works above had been laid open, they would probably have surprised the spectator. The interior of this orchestra or fire-place was no less striking. In the centre of it was a curious contrivance for heating the building in cold weather, to any degree required. It consisted of a fireplace that could not smoke nor become offensive, and of a chimney reaching upwards to the ceiling. The latter had faces, and by tins over each of them, which were taken off at pleasure, the heat was increased


or diminished. The faces were formed by stone arches, with stone pediments above. The corners of the faces were supported by pieces of cannon, with iron spikes driven into them, and filled up with lead. These looked like black marble pillars. On the pediments, and in the spaces between them, were flower-branches of small glass lamps, which, when lighted, looked extremely brilliant. Above the pediments were niches in wood, in each of which was a painting; and over all was a dome, which terminated this inner structure. The chimney, which proceeded to the top of the Rotunda, was of brick. The band of music consisted of a select number of performers, vocal and instrumental, accompanied by an organ. The concert began about o'clock, and, after singing and music, closed about . Round the Rotunda, and forming a portion of the building, were boxes for the accommodation of the company, in which they were regaled with tea or coffee and other refreshments. In each of these boxes was a painting of some droll figure; and they were lighted by large bell lamps suspended between them. They were divided by wainscoting and square pillars. The latter were in front, and, being main timbers, formed part of the support of the roof. Each pillar was cased, and the front of every alternate pillar ornamented from top to bottom with an oblong looking-glass, in a gilt frame. At the back of each box was a pair of folding doors, which opened into the gardens, and were designed for the convenience of passing in and out without being obliged to use the grand entrances. Each of these boxes would commodiously hold persons. The gallery above was fronted with a balustrade and pillars resembling marble, encircled with festoons of flowers in a spiral form, surmounted by termini of plaster of Paris. This gallery also contained boxes, lighted like those below. At the distance of boxes from the orchestra, on the right hand, was the Prince's box, for the reception of any of the Royal Family. It was elegantly hung with paper, and ornamented in the front with the Prince of Wales's crest. The great ceiling of the Rotunda had a stone-coloured ground, on which, at proper intervals, were oval panels, with paintings of celestial figures on a sky-blue ground. Festoons of flowers, and other ornaments, connected the panels with some of a smaller size and of a square form, on which were arabesque ornaments in stone colour, on a dark-brown ground. From the ceiling hung chandeliers, in circles; each chandelier ornamented with a gilt coronet, and the candles contained in bell lamps. chandeliers were in the external circle, and in the internal. On the whole, it might have been said of Ranelagh, that it was of those public places of entertainment for convenience, elegance, and grandeur unsurpassed.

The Rotunda was opened on the , with a public breakfast, a species of entertainment that was afterwards suppressed by act of Parliament, as detrimental to society. Morning concerts were also given for some time at Ranelagh, consisting chiefly of selections from oratorios. Musical performances of a more original and important character were gradually introduced. We learn from the

Gentleman's Magazine

for that on the ,


Ranelagh House

were performed the much-admired catches and glees, selected from the curious collection of the Catch Club; being the


of the kind publicly exhibited in this or any other kingdom. The entertainment

consisted of the favourite catches and glees composed by the most eminent masters of the last and present age, by a considerable number of the best vocal and instrumental performers. The choral and instrumental parts were added, to give the catches and glees their proper effect in so large an amphitheatre; being composed for that purpose by

Dr. Arne


This eminent musician had married a songstress of distinguished reputation, Miss Cecilia Young. His connexion with Mr. Tyers began in the year , when his wife appeared at , and he himself became principal composer there. Although we do not find the fact expressly stated, it is highly probable that Dr. Arne was concerned in the musical performance at in , which we find thus recorded in the

Gentleman's Magazine:


April 25, 1749

, was performed at

Vauxhall Gardens

the rehearsal of the music for the fireworks (to be given in

St. James's Park

on the


), by a band of


musicians, to an audience of above


persons: tickets

2s. 6d.

So great a resort occasioned such a stoppage on

London Bridge

that no carriage could pass for



The morning entertainments soon gave place to those of the evening--a period of the day more congenial to such enjoyments, which were occasionally enhanced by the exhibition of fire-works on a very magnificent scale, accompanied by mimic representations of an eruption of Mount Etna, and other natural phenomena, similar to that we have seen recently revived at the .

Lastly, masquerades were introduced, and gave a new, but not very honourable or permanently useful, interest to Ranelagh. It is after a masquerade at Ranelagh that the ruin of of Fielding's female characters in


is accomplished, and Amelia herself is destined to a similar fate under similar circumstances, when she is happily warned of her danger. But the most interesting record we possess concerning the masquerades of Ranelagh is to be found in a satirical paper in the


where the writer, having referred to a celebrated lady who had a few years before attempted to introduce a new species of masquerade, by lopping off the exuberance of dress, and appearing in the character of Iphigenia undressed for the sacrifice, continues,

What the above-mentioned lady had the hardiness to attempt alone will (I am assured) be set on foot by our persons of fashion as soon as the hot days come in. Ranelagh is the place pitched upon for their meeting, where it is proposed to have a masquerade

al fresco



set of ladies, I am told, intend to personate water-nymphs bathing in the canal;


sisters, celebrated for their charms, design to appear together as the


Graces; and a certain lady of quality, who most resembles the goddess of beauty, is now practising, from a model of the noted statue of Venus de Medicis, the most striking attitudes for that character. As to the gentlemen, they may most of them represent very suitably the half-brutal forms of Satyrs, Pans, Fauns, and Centaurs, &c.

If this scheme for a naked masquerade should meet with encouragement (as there is no doubt but it must), it is proposed to improve it still farther. Persons of fashion cannot but lament that there are no diversions allotted to Sunday, except the card-table; and they can never enough regret that the Sunday evening's tea-drinkings at Ranelagh were laid aside, from a superstitious regard to religion. They therefore intend to have a particular sort of masquerade on that day, in which they may show their taste by ridiculing all the old women's tales contained in that

Ranelagh (Masquerade)

idle book of fables, the Bible, while the vulgar are devoutly attending to them at church. This indeed is not without a parallel: we have had an instance already of an Eve; and, by borrowing the serpent in Orpheus and Eurydice, we might have the whole story of the Fall of Man exhibited in a masquerade.


But, after all, the chief amusement of Ranelagh was the promenading round the circular area of the Rotunda, to see and be seen; and a very dull sort of amusement it must have proved, when the gloss of novelty had worn off, to all that numerous class of visitants who were unable to appreciate the music, which played at intervals through the whole evening, and who had no claim to be considered as members of the fashionable world.

Then again, there's your famous Ranelagh that you make such a fuss about,

says Captain Mirvan, in Miss Burney's novel of

Evelina ;


why, what a dull place is that!

Ranelagh dull!-Ranelagh dull!

was echoed from mouth to mouth; and the ladies, as of


accord, regarded the Captain with looks of the most ironical contempt.

As to Ranelagh,

said Mr. Lovel,

most indubitably, though the price is plebeian, it is by no means adapted to the plebeian taste. It requires a certain acquaintance with high life, and-and-and something of-of-something d'un vrai gout, to be really sensible of its merit. Those whose-whose connexions, and so forth, are not among les gens comme il faut, can feel nothing but ennui at such a place as Ranelagh.

This passage gives us an excellent idea of the chief attraction of Ranelagh; and the poet Bloomfield, in some amusing verses written about the period of its fall, thus good-humouredly ridicules the empty, unmeaning character of the entertainments:--

To Ranelagh once in my life By good-natur'd force I was driven; The nations had ceas'd their long strife, And Peace beam'd her radiance from heaven. What wonders were here to be found That a clown might enjoy or disdain? First, we trac'd the gay circle all round; Ay-and then we went round it again. A thousand feet rustled on mats,-- A carpet that once had been green; Men bow'd with their outlandish hats, With corners so fearfully keen. Fair maids, who at home in their haste Had left all clothing else but a train, Swept the floor clean as slowly they pac'd, Then--walk'd round and swept it again.

We may see from this last verse that the satire of the


had not driven the ladies into a more becoming style of dress. Not much longer, however, did Ranelagh afford a scene for such displays. It became less and less popular even among its supporters, and at last (about ) the Rotunda was pulled down, and the beautiful Ranelagh disappeared, leaving not a vestige of its existence behind.


[n.398.1] Vol. vi.

[n.401.1] Connoisseur, No. 66. May 1, 1755.

[n.401.2] Letter xxiii.