Belsize Baroque remember sleaze of 18th century ‘pleasure gardens’

Belsize Baroque

Belsize Baroque - Credit: Archant

Like many of its north London neighbours, Belsize Park hides a sleazy history beneath its prestigious, modern veneer.

Back in the 18th century, the area’s eponymous house was home to a series of pleasure gardens where visitors often engaged in mud-wrestling, illegal gambling and a wide-reaching spectrum of sexual deviance.

Before the squalor set in however, the gardens of Belsize House briefly attracted a higher class of society, with the Prince and Princess of Wales perhaps their most famous guests.

Such visitors would be customarily entertained with the sounds of baroque music.

“It seemed to be a very popular thing for concerts to be held in these gardens,” explains Paul Nicholson, who is directing a new musical celebration of these concerts.

“In the eighteenth century, a better quality of life was opening up for the middle-classes and they could aspire to better things.

“It was a fairly affluent time and suddenly they were able to flaunt their newfound riches, so many could afford to come and spend their time around Belsize.”

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This Saturday, classical group Belsize Baroque – who have been playing locally since 2002 – present Gardens of Pleasure, a concert recalling the 18th century pleasure gardens of Belsize House.

Taking place at St Peter’s Church in Belsize Park, where Nicholson works as a pastor, the event will showcase the works of both well-known and more obscure composers.

“We’ve based the show around a lot of local London interest. Some composers people will know; Thomas Arne wrote the music for Rule Britannia, while Handel lived in London for a great portion of his professional life and became very close to local hearts.

“The works of [John] Stanley and [William] Hayes are probably less well known by comparison. But these two men were quite important in the field, especially in London, where they were often played in theatres.”

Before retiring to pursue his work with the church, Nicholson was a specialist baroque musician and played with the revered Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

He is looking forward to returning to the stage to direct Belsize Baroque, though unlike modern standalone conductors, this can be done from the seat of a harpsichord due to the comparative intimacy of a baroque ensemble.

Intriguingly, the majority of instruments played by the orchestra will be rare and traditional models of those used at the time; in addition to the harpsichord, early forms of violins, cellos and bass will complement modern but authentic sounding devices like the chamber organ.

While the actual link to the pleasure gardens will mercifully just be through the music, the acoustics of St Peter’s are sure to transport audiences back through the centuries.

“English baroque composers were very influenced by the music coming out of Europe,” Nicholson adds, “but with these writers, you can also sense the public side of the music, the role it has in Georgian society.

“The sound is not esoteric – it’s not hard to listen to. Much of it would have been heard in theatres and pleasure gardens, for an increasingly broad section of society who wanted to be entertained.”

Belsize Baroque perform Gardens of Pleasure at St Peter’s Church, Belsize Park, on Saturday from 7.30pm. Tickets are £12 on the door.