Fireworks Part 2: Marvellous Contrivances and Warlike Music

MUSIC AND FIREWORKS!   By the 17thc the most important state occasions and civic events called for pageants, processions, ceremonies and often  included extravagant firework displays too.   A new generation of gunners used their military skills with gunpowder to devise  entertainments as well as weaponry.

Fireworks were becoming an increasingly sophisticated  art form in their own right, and by the mid 18thc could be spectacular in scale and extravagance as was shown by the display in London’s Green Park where Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was premiered in 1749 [click on the links & you can hear it as you read!] Although not everything went according to plan as you’ll see if you read on…

Last week’s post finished with this image of a firework display on a ship. It was part of an artificial battle scene designed by Jean Appier Hanzelet, Firework Master of the Duke of Lorraine. The sky is filled with suns, stars, rockets  and small fire-breathing dragons. Like the ships crew who appear to be exploding they are all artificial and made in Hanzelet’s workshop. Such artifice was soon to become well known across northern and Western Europe and filled palace gardens and grounds as well as public spaces on grand occasions.

Unfortunately no-one drew what was probably the first most significant public display in Britain, the wedding of Princess Elizabeth the future Winter Queen to the Elector Frederick of the Palatinate in 1613 , although there is a very lengthy description of the celebrations.

Instead we’ll have to make do with some contemporary continental sources which give an indication of what this must have been like. The first is an image of celebrations of St Louis’s day in Paris in 1613 which bears a lot of similarities

and the second a supposedly “true representation” of a much later display which I’ve included because of its Venetian and Ottoman connections.

The wedding party and their guests sat in the windows and on the terraces of Whitehall Palace overlooking the Thames and watched a massive firework display on the river.   St George battled the Dragon for a full 15 minutes on their wires suspended over the water before the dragon finally exploded and George burned himself out.  Then firework hounds are supposed to have chased a firework hart, jumping and turning to catch it, and when that was over there was a mock naval battle.

The following day  two Venetian galleys  were attacked by 17 Turkish ones with the river closed off by barges “to keep out passengers which otherwise with much unruliness would have hindered the pastimes…”  After a gallant fight the Venetians were captured and taken off to a Turkish castle that had been erected on the Lambeth bank. A Spanish galleon sailed by and it too was taken prisoner by the Turks. Then riding or rather sailing to the rescue came an English fleet which defeated the Turks, set fire to their castle and took them all prisoner back to Whitehall.

The show  lasted 3 hours and was watched by crowds along the river bank. It was followed by more fireworks – “a traine” of chambers – on St George’s Fields in Lambeth  “of long continuance and of such an echoing thunder that they even amazed the hearers”.

The Turkish castle presumably went up as part of the pyrotechnic display and I wondered how it all happened. A bit of searching in artillery manuals found the answer. Like the obelisks in the print above, the tower was a sham.  It was just a facade with a wooden framework covered by painted paper or perhaps canvas on the front side which concealed a rack of fireworks behind waiting to be fired. The statue below is a 3D version of the same thing.


After this there isn’t much visual evidence of firework displays in Britain until the Restoration, although there are several books on gunnery, which include images and descriptions of devices that could be used for entertainment as well as warfare.

There are however plenty of continental sources, and if the number of images and events recorded it was France who led the way.   This drawing shows a display  in the grounds of the Palais Royal in Paris in 1642 in front of Louis XIII and his wife Anne of Austria. It gives a clear indication of the way such events were laid out, organised and policed.



We’ve all heard of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks [which we’ll come onto later] but France got their first with an orchestral accompaniment to pyrotechnics. When Louis XIV’s first grandson was born in 1682 the Jesuits laid on a grand event with fireworks from the rooftops of their college with music to match.



Nor was it just in the capital. The birth, and most other events, was also celebrated by fireworks in regional centres such as Strasbourg which were keen to show their importance.

There was a lapse in firework celebrations in England during the Civil War and Commonwealth but they begin to return slowly in Britain with the return of Charles II in 1660.

We know that Martin Beckman, a Swedish military engineer  was probably involved with  designing the pyrotechnic celebrations for the coronation  because he later petitioned Charles saying he had been “ruined and severely injured by an accident at an explosion in the preparation of fireworks to be shown on the water in the king’s honour.”  Unfortunately even though we know the fireworks  happened there are no descriptions.   Pepys did not attend because he had a hangover – or as he more subtly put it – his head was “in a sad taking from last night’s drink,” but he did report “the noise of chambers and other things of the fireworks, which are now playing upon the Thames for the King” and “was sorry not to see them.”

Beckman was later appointed royal Firemaster although his main work was still with military engineering and fortifications.   In April 1685 he organised the lavish  display, again on the Thames, for the coronation of James II.   Beckman was knighted the following year and designed more fireworks in 1688 when the Queen, Mary of Modena,  gave birth to an heir – James Stuart, later the Old Pretender. Later that year he was appointed “Comptroller of Fireworks as well for War as for Triumph,” with an allowance of £200 a year.    He was the first holder of that office which lasted until the end of the Crimean War.

After James fled at the Glorious Revolution Beckman organised the fireworks to welcome William III to London. The new king, like his Dutch compatriots,  seems to have been even keener on fireworks than his predecessors – or perhaps the technology had become better and fashion had changed.

Medals were struck when he returned to  The Hague, in 1691 following his victory over James in Ireland at the Battle of the Boyne. Triumphal arches and immense festivities as well the fireworks were laid on to outshine their great enemy Louis XIV who had  organised grand celebrations  illuminations and fireworks when it was mistakenly reported that William had been defeated and killed.

Louis of course was an old hand at commanding fireworks. I wrote recently about the work of Israel Sylvestre who recorded the Plaisirs de l’Isle enchantée – or the Pleasures of the Enchanted Island – the celebrations staged to mark the completion of the first stage of the work to the gardens at Versailles in 1664. These include plenty of fireworks culminating in the burning of the enchantress’s palace.











The Treaty of Ryswick also led to fireworks – this time in St James’ Square – in 1697. It seems to have been a relatively simple affair compared with French and Dutch displays but I’ve found a contemporary account which shows that it wasn’t quite the success intended





Charles Hatton, younger brother of Viscount Hatton of Kirby, went  “to see ye fireworkes, for wch there had been soe long and costly preparations. I was very desirous to see ym, but, not knowing whither conveniently to goe, I had given over all thoughts of seeing them, and my curiosity was quite abated; but ye day they were to be I had 3 or 4 tickets sent me, and by my wifes earnest persuasion I went; but my curiosity was as little satisfyed as any person’s ther. It is generally reported ye expence for them amounted to £12000.  Ther was in St James’s Square a sort of triumphall arch built, but very ill designed, on ye topp of wch were 4 figures made of wood and painted, one at each comer, and, had ther not been ye names of what they were designed for, noe person cou’d have guess’d what they were meant for. Peace out of a comucopeia flung out rockets of wild fire. Conduct had a death’s head in one of her hands. Concord held in a dish a flaming heart; and Valour had by it a ravenous lyon. The whole was an emblem. Ther was a great unnecessary expence of treasure; severall killed; a vast number of crackers; and all ended in smoake and stinke. Sir Martin Beckman hath got ye curses of a great many, ye praises of noebody. Ther was only a vast number of chambers shot of, and a prodigious number of serpents and large rockets, the cases and sticks of wch were soe large that, when they fell down, killed assuredly 3 or 4 persons, hurted many more. One falling upon ye Lord Hallifaxes his house broke quite thro ye roofe, but hurt noebody.”


Its sad that none of these early engravings appear to have been hand coloured – until finally in 1713 we get this Dutch print marking the Treaty of Utrecht which spelled  the end of the long War of the Spanish Succession.   A similar, although sadly less colourfully recorded  affair, took place in London.



However it’s the celebrations held for the Treaty of Aix le Chapelle in 1748 that were to become the most celebrated. This marked the end of yet another one of the seemingly endless European wars, this time the eight year long War of the Austrian Succession and George II was determined to do things in style.


 In October 1748, within weeks of the treaty being signed, construction began on a setting for a tremendous display of fire-works, to take place the following April. Yes you did read that right: it took six months to build the set!    It was planned by  an Franco-Italian theatre designer,  Giovanni Servandoni, who had previously helped turn the Seine into a stage for fireworks to celebrate the dynastic matching of Princess Louise daughter of  Louis XV to  Filippo, Duke of Parma and son of Philip V of Spain.



The Royal Laboratory at Woolwich was in charge of manufacturing the fireworks, at the expense of £8000.  A site was chosen in Green Park where a mock  temple or “machine” as it was usually known was put up to Servandoni’s elaborate design.   The fireworks were fixed by Italian pyrotechnists, although army engineers were also involved and there were quite a lot of disputes between the two groups  about fuses and timings.

It was this celebration for which handle wrote Music for the Royal Fireworks, or as it was described at the time “a grand Ouverture on warlike instruments” because George II had a preference for only martial music, and hoped there would be “no fiddles”. Rehearsals were held at Vauxhall Gardens rather in Green park which was attended by 12,000 people each paying two shillings and sixpence to attend.  Handel himself was to conduct and would be accompanied by 100 brass cannons which were placed in the arcades connecting the side pavilions of the temple to the main building.

Amongst the fireworks were included the following “fixed Suns, stars of six points, and between each point array, a large vertical son moved by double fires, cascades, pyramids 40 feet high et cetera et cetera.”  It was a complex set up the chief device was one “from wins five issues out and retires within, 12 times alternately; when without, it forms a glory; when within its composes a start of eight points, and then changes to a royal brilliant wheel, whose fire is 30 feet in diameter and is moved by 12 fires.” A total of 10,650 rockets were to be fired.

The weather was apparently not brilliant when at 7 o’clock in the evening George II attended by parade of courtiers made a tour of the machine while crowds gathered to listen to Handel’s music. The king took his seat in the Royal box and the rocket was fired to signal the start of proceedings.  The building was lit with thousands of lamps and illuminated transparencies of “peace” on its walls.

The overture eventually started and at first all went well despite the occasional rain, until the orchestra reached the largo movement when a set piece representing Peace was lit. Shortly afterwards  disaster struck. The arguments between Italian and British engineers erupted again and the upshot was an explosion.   It set fire to one of the pavilions which then burned down – adding flames to the fireworks which continued throughout although the principal part of the display had to be  abandoned.

As Horace Walpole nonchalantly put it  this “contributed to the awkwardness of the whole, [although]  very little mischief was done, but two persons killed.”    Walpole did not think the show worth the time effort or money involved :” the machine itself was very beautiful and alone was worth seeing. The Rockets and whatever was thrown into the air succeeded mighty well but the wheels and all that was to compose the principal part, were pitiful and ill conducted with no change of coloured fires and shapes… And lighted so slowly that scares anybody had patience to wait for the finishing.”

At midnight the royals left  and things gradually wound down  but there was still a considerable quantity of fireworks left. These were  bought by the Duke of Richmond who took him to his own house on Whitehall and  had his own firework display in the garden which ran down to the Thames after a concert of music which Walpole thought much better:  “whatever you hear of the Richmond fireworks that are short of the prettiest entertainment in the world, don’t believe it;  I really never passed a more agreeable evening.”

Walpole was quite generous compared with public and press reaction. Apart from Handel’s music which Mozart later called a “spectacle of English pride and joy” the whole thing was ridiculed. It would cost £14,500 and unsurprisingly it was several years before London saw anymore grand scale fireworks.”

But that doesn’t mean fireworks were over as we’ll see in the last of this short history of fireworks in the garden shortly.

Vue perspective du feu d ‘ artifice qui doit être tiré sur l’Eau [eau] près la place de Louis XV. en réjouissance de la Paix le vingt deux juin 1763.




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