Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Jonathan Tyers, the owner of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, had his own private estate at Denbies in Surrey.  There he named an 8-acre woodland 'Il Penseroso' after Milton's poem - perhaps, as Tim Richardson says in his book The Arcadian Friends, Tyers 'viewed Vauxhall Gardens as its equivalent, the more jocund L'Allegro' and the melancholy woodland as 'a kind of penance for the jolly hedonism of Vauxhall.'  In this wooded part of the garden there was a hermitage called the Temple of Death which contained, in addition to a memorial to garden designer Lord Petre, a model of a white raven and a clock that chimed every minute, to remind visitors of the transience of life.  Black leather-bound copies of Edward Young's Night Thoughts and Robert Blair's The Grave were available for perusal on a table.  Beyond the hermitage was a gateway with posts made from upright coffins, 'its arch surmounted by a pair of human skulls (reputedly real - one belonging to a highwayman, the other a prostitute's)'.  This was the entrance to the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  Here the two artists Tyers had previously employed at Vauxhall were asked to decorate the interior of a temple.  Either side of an allegorical statue by Louis-Fran├žois Roubiliac were paintings by Francis Hayman: The Death of a Christian (peaceful and accompanied by an angel) and The Death of an Unbeliever (about to be speared by a leering skeleton).  Richardson concludes that 'any visitors who arrived thinking they might have an amusing time with the happy-go-lucky proprietor of Vauxhall Gardens were in for a disappointment.'

William Blake, illustration intended for the 1805
publication of Blair's poem 'The Grave'

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