Strictly Jane Austen

Jane Austen & the Pleasure Garden

Summer has arrived and, to celebrate the outdoor season, this month’s Musings (written by our expert guest blogger Dr Moira Rudolf) takes you back in time to Bath’s Pleasure Gardens as Jane Austen would have known them.

In 1801 Revd Austen made two important decisions:  that he would retire and – as all the Austen sons were now independent – that he, Mrs Austen, Cassandra and Jane would move to Bath.  They all preferred different parts of the city:  Mrs Austen adored Queen Square; Mr Austen loved Laura Place, while  Jane favoured Great Pulteney Street/Sydney Place – though none cared for gloomy Axford Buildings; the northern extension of the Paragon, close to the home of Jane’s uncle, James Leigh-Perrot.

On 21 January 1801, Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra:

‘I join with you in wishing for the environs of Laura Place.  My mother hankers after the Square [Queen Square] dreadfully, and it is but natural to suppose that my uncle will take her part.  It would be very pleasant to be near Sydney Gardens; we might go into the Labyrinth every day.’

Jane was eventually led to 4 Sydney Place, her favourite Bath residence, by an advertisement in the Bath Chronicle dated 21st May 1801. The house was almost new and, in September the same year, the Austens moved in. Sydney Place was on the edge of open countryside; the leafy views of Sydney Gardens from the principal rooms may have reminded Jane of  her beloved Hampshire.  It was, too, an easy walk into town. 

Today’s Holburne Museum (designed by Thomas Baldwin and executed by his pupil, Harcourt Masters) was opened 1796/7 as the Sydney House, or Sydney Hotel and is the central element of Sydney Gardens. This fashionable pleasure garden, promenading and entertainment venue opened in 1795 and is also the work of Baldwin and Masters. Pleasure gardens were important components of the hospitality industry at the time and were dubbed ‘Vauxhalls’ after the famous Vauxhall Gardens in London.  Most have disappeared but Sydney Gardens survives as the oldest park in Bath.   

The Sydney Hotel is a ‘Janus building’ showing a formal face to the town and an informal one – now much compromised  – to the gardens.  The rear of the building as Jane knew it no longer exists, having been recast once in 1914-16 and again in the 2010s by Eric Parry’s modern, ceramic-clad extension. (This somewhat controversial addition opened in 2011.)

It was not an hotel in the sense that we recognise it but rather a hospitality venue with coffee/tea, card rooms, and a ballroom above.  The ‘Sydney Tap’, a pub for sedan chairmen, coachmen and servants – who were not admitted to the fashionable gardens – seems, initially, to have been in the city-facing, right wing of the building (demolished 1916 and replaced by the present colonnade). However, sometime in the late eighteenth-century, it was exiled to an unassuming free-standing building concealed behind an arbour off a side entrance from New Sydney Place.

The original garden front had a huge first floor conservatory with sash windows flanking a central, semi-circular balcony accommodating a hundred-piece orchestra. Below this was a painted ‘transparency’ of Apollo and his lyre on translucent linen, coaxing people into the gardens beyond.  Timber supper boxes extended in a semi-circle from the rear of the building, roughly on the site of today’s stone wall, enclosing an area with a ‘moveable orchestra’ for informal concerts and a space for fireworks.  Fireworks were generally symmetrically mounted on a timber frame, theatrically mocked-up as a Roman temple.  Beyond, to the left and right, were bowling greens, walks and other features.

The site is an elongated boat-shaped hexagon, compromised by three significant later encroachments:  the Kennet & Avon canal (John Rennie, 1799-1810); Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s 1840 Great Western Railway and a pair of mid-nineteenth-century villas.  However, it is still possible to make out parts of the perimeter drive which encircled the gardens and was  furnished with jumping bars to entertain those on horseback and pavilions for promenaders.  Jane and Cassandra enjoyed long – often evening – promenades here, and numerous entertainments. 

The New Bath Guide (1801) details the wonders and marvels:

‘waterfalls, stone and thatched pavilions, alcoves, a sham castle, bowling greens, swings, a labyrinth, a fine Merlin swing, a grotto of antique appearance and four thatched umbrellas as a shelter from rains.’ 

There were also fountains, rills, a hermit’s cell with the figure of a ‘pious anchorite’ and two trompe l’oeil scenes painted on canvas: a mill scene and clockwork ‘cascade’ which featured painted rollers and mechanical figures passing to and fro over a bridge.  These diversions – along with the Labyrinth – are long gone, but the central axis which ran from the rear of the supper boxes to a colonnaded loggia called The Exedra (designed by Thomas Baldwin in 1795 and later rebuilt at the top of the gardens) remains, along with the serpentine paths. 

In 1799, when Jane was staying with her elder brother Edward at 13 Queen Square, she (gleefully) wrote to Cassandra:

‘there is a public breakfast in Sydney Gardens every morning, so that we shall not be wholly starved.’

She enjoyed the popular 10am Monday breakfasts served in the supper boxes and offering cold meats, cheese, eggs, bread rolls and Sally Lunns. This feast would be followed by tea or coffee at noon and dancing from 3pm to 4pm.

Every summer there were three Gala evenings, opening at 5pm with a menu of cold ham, chicken, beef, lamb and tongue washed down with wine, spirits, porter, cider and perry. A concert followed at 7pm. 

On 4th June 1799, a Grand Gala was held to honour the King’s Birthday ‘in a style of magnificence never exceeded’. Jane, writing to Cassandra, described it as a concert with illuminations and fireworks:

‘Elizabeth [Edward’s wife] and I look forward with pleasure, and even the concert will have more than its usual charm with me, as the Gardens are large enough for me to get pretty well beyond the reach of its sound.’

June 4th, however, turned out to be a wet night and the gala was postponed. Jane and Elizabeth attended the repeat performance, timing their arrival to miss the music:

‘Last night we were in Sydney Gardens again, as there was a repetition of the Gala which went off so ill on the 4th.  We did not go till nine, and then were in very good time for the fireworks, which were really beautiful and surpassing my expectation; the illuminations too were very pretty.  The weather was favourable, as it was otherwise a fortnight ago.’

A later writer, Piers Egan recorded his experience of the Gardens on a gala night:

‘The gradual ascent of the principal walk … upon a gala night has a most brilliant effect, from the numerous variegated lamps with which it is ornamented….  The view, when seated in the pavilion down to the orchestra, across arches covered with lamps, gives it a very captivating appearance.’

Brunel’s dramatically-walled Great Western Railway destroyed the Labyrinth, which stood directly in its path, thereby isolating much of the garden’s northern layout.  The central, boat-shaped Merlin Swing – a mechanical contraption novel for its time – enticed people in, as did the cosy areas for tea parties.  In the grounds of today’s nearby Bath Spa Hotel is a wonderful tufa grotto, which, I think, is the Labyrinth’s original exit. It would have been dismantled and stored and then re-erected in this new site in around 1825.

Jane would have walked over the two appealing ‘Chinoiserie’ iron footbridges many times; Made at Coalbrookdale then shipped to Bath in 1800, they were seen as positive elements in the canal’s construction, together with its ‘Little Venice’ appearance and pretty towpath.

Nothing, alas, remains of the garden’s sham castle except for some embedded iron, possibly part of a mighty portcullis?  It would have been dramatically lit for special occasions.

4 Sydney Place is the only place in Bath with a plaque in Jane’s honour. It’s worth noting that the dates -1801-05 – are incorrect as Revd Austen could not renew the lease when it expired in 1804. The Austen family moved to the cheaper – but capacious – 3 Green Park Buildings East which, alas, no longer exists.

Dr Moira Rudolf, a Walking Tour Guide, first trained as an Art Historian (University of Manchester, Department of History of Art), with an especial interest in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before she returned to her first love, Architectural History, in which she gained her doctorate (University of London, Courtauld Institute). She has a lifelong enthusiasm for the architectural/social history of Bath, having fallen in love with the city at the age of five, and – somewhat later – with the life, works and wit of Jane Austen. After all, who could resist Mr Tilney, or even Mr Darcy?

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