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Grounds for Pleasure: The Pleasure Garden in Britain and America, 1660–1914

Jonathan Conlin, University of Southampton, Summer Fellow 2010

Pleasure gardens were seasonal, commercially-operated suburban resorts in which elite and middle-class men and women congregated of a summer evening. Though London's Vauxhall Gardens and other eighteenth-century London resorts are regularly cited as evidence of a rising middle class and patterns of consumption and leisure associated with the modern city, the only book to consider them in any depth was published in 1897. They have been written out of garden history entirely, dismissed as tawdry, commercial operations lacking the earnest, public-spirited rhetoric commonly invested in public parks.

My project here at Dumbarton Oaks was focused on preparing a collection of essays on eighteenth– and nineteenth-century British and American pleasure gardens for publication by the University of Pennsylvania Press. During my weeks in Washington I was able to supervise the book proposal as it went before Penn's board, discuss revisions with contributors (especially those based in the United States and Canada) and, most importantly, to write the introduction to the volume, drawing on Dumbarton Oaks' holdings to assess the state of scholarship in garden and landscape studies in general and American garden studies in particular, both fields in which I initially felt something of an interloper.

The volume emerges from a 2008 Tate Britain/Garden Museum conference and concert entitled “Vauxhall Revisited: Pleasure Gardens and Their Publics, 1660–1880,” which I organized and which brought together garden historians, art historians, literary scholars, musicologists, and others. The conference kick-started an interdisciplinary debate, one that several contributors felt should be extended into a book. Given the wide range, it was important to ensure that the collection hangs together and that contributors were communicating their research in a way that speaks to scholars from other disciplines.

Over the course of my fellowship I surveyed eighteenth-century works on gardening in the Rare Books collection as well as more recent scholarship on landscape architecture. Although I encountered the odd author who overlooked pleasure gardens in order to maintain the traditional focus on private pleasure gardens and public parks, for the most part I was delighted to find that my peers were beginning to consider these resorts. Whether challenging the traditional Walpolean dyad of artificial/French vs. natural/English styles or noting how the layout of ostensibly public parks such as Central Park had emerged only after the more genuinely inclusive pleasure garden model had been rejected, it was clear that we were debating similar questions of social inclusion, performativity, and the construction of nature.