Thomas Rowlandson’s Vauxhall Gardens: The Lives of a Print
While there have been many reception studies of verbal texts, it is only recently that we have begun to explore the historical and cultural contexts of interpretations of eighteenth-century visual print culture. Given that Thomas Rowlandson’s 1784 watercolor Vauxhall Gardens has become the definitive image of that famous pleasure garden, and has given rise to many complex and contradictory readings, a reception history of this beguiling print is long overdue. Tracing the print’s reception from Henry Angelo, an old, school friend of Rowlandson’s, through David Coke and Alan Borg’s 2011 sumptuous cultural history of the gardens, this article concludes with a closer look at a version of the print that has only recently come to light. Part of the Paul Mellon Collection housed at the Yale Center for British Art, this image, perhaps a trial version, contains a surprising figure that is absent from the more familiar watercolor. At center left, just behind the figures that have often been identified as the Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Duncannon, stands a man who appears to be holding a drawing pad with which to capture the likeness of the viewer who stands before him, or, better yet, the likeness of the artist who faces the crowd and sketches the scene captured in Vauxhall Gardens, in other words, Rowlandson himself. An endless of hall of mirrors in which we can gaze at ourselves gazing at others gazing at us, Rowlandson’s Vauxhall Gardens is indeed a print with many lives.
Berg, Temma. "Thomas Rowlandson’s Vauxhall Gardens: The Lives of a Print." Eighteenth-Century Life 39.3 (September 2015), 2-32.