Jonathan Tyers was born in Bermondsey in 1702, the son of a woolstapler and fellmonger (a dealer in wool, skin and hides). He worked in the family business until his mid twenties when he obtained a lease on New Spring Gardens in Kennington, a run down pleasure garden first mentioned by Samuel Pepys in 1662 which had become little more than a “rural brothel” by the time Tyers took over the management. The young man turned out to be a talented entrepreneur and he transformed the fortunes of Vauxhall (as New Spring Gardens would eventually become known) from a shabby place of sexual assignation to a smart pleasure garden that attracted the patronage of royalty and the cream of 18th century society. It could attract huge crowds to its tree lined walkways illuminated at night by thousands of lamps; 12,000 turned up to hear a rehearsal of Handel’s Firework Music in 1749. James Boswell, musing on its success wrote, “Vauxhall Gardens is peculiarly adapted to the taste of the English nation; there being a mixture of curious show, — gay exhibition, musick, vocal and instrumental, not too refined for the general ear; — for all of which only a shilling is paid; and, though last, not least, good eating and drinking for those who choose to purchase that regale.”
|Jonathan Tyers with his family, a portrait of around 1740 by Francis Hayman|
The hugely successful Tyers bought Denbies,an estate in the hills of Surrey, close to Dorking. To general surprise he set about creating another garden, but this one was private and so different in spirit to New Spring Gardens that the Harlequin Magazine later called it “Anti-Vauxhall”. The centre piece of the garden was an 8 acre wood which he named Il penseroso, after Milton’s vision of poetic on Melancholy, which contained a temple dedicated to Fleeting Life and Inevitable Death. Its centre piece, now sadly lost, was a stucco monument to Tyer’s friend Lord Petre, the botanist and gardener who had died at the early age of 29. The monument by Louis-Francois Roubiliac must have been as magnificent as his famous memorial for the Nightingales in Westminster Abbey An angel was shown blowing the last trump and causing a stone pyramid to crumble. Inside the pyramid a corpse threw aside its shroud and prepared to rise from the dead with an expression of ecstasy and bewilderment on its cadaverous face.
Other highlights of the temple were a statue of a white raven, lecterns supporting chained copies of Edward Young’s ‘Night Thoughts’ and Robert Blair’s ‘The Grave’ and a hidden clock that chimed every minute, “forcibly proclaiming the rapid march of time” to remind listeners of their mortality.
Near to the temple a gateway led to the Shadow of the Valley of Death, a walkway which led to another building whose entrance was formed by two stone coffins on top of which were the real skulls of a prostitute and a highwayman. A long inscription beneath the prostitute’s skull started:
Blush not, ye fair, to own me! - but be wise,Not turn from sad mortality your eyes;
Fame says (and Fame alone can tell you how true)
I –once- was lovely, and belov’d like you.
And below the highwayman’s skull:
Why start? – the case is yours – or will be soon;Some years, perhaps – perhaps another moon;
Life, at its utmost length, is still a breath,
And those who longest dream, must wake in death.
Inside, in an alcove at the rear just behind a statue of Truth trampling on a mask were two paintings by Francis Hayman, now lost (except for engraved copies), comparing the deaths of a good and a bad man. The good man reclines comfortably in his bed with a beatific look on his face as he awaits the genial bearded figure of old father time whilst, the bad man starts up in his chair in terror as a ghastly skeleton calls to take him to an eternity of damnation.
|"The Bad Man at the hour of his Death," an engraving by Thomas Chambers after Francis Hayman's painting|
After Tyer’s death in 1767 his family sold off Denbies. The new owners were not keen on a garden full of memento mori and dismantled the buildings and either sold or, more likely, destroyed their contents. Tyers was interred in the vaults of St Mary Magdalen in Bermondsey.
|St Mary Magdelan, Bermondsey where Jonathan Tyers lay in the vaults.|