Rocket Man

24th October 2018

Goodwood is famed for its spectacular fireworks displays, a tradition that stretches right back to the time of the second Duke of Richmond.

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As visitors to the Festival of Speed and August Bank Holiday marvel at the extraordinary fireworks displays that round off these and other Goodwood events, they may be unaware that the Estate’s connection with fireworks stretches back to the 18th century and the time of the second Duke of Richmond. During the mid-1700s, fêtes champêtres nocturnes (rural night-time parties) were all the rage. The grounds of grand country houses were transformed into lantern-lit stage sets in which guests were entertained until the early hours with food, drink and illuminations. 

As Kate Feluś writes in The Secret Life of the Georgian Garden , this custom was inspired by Grand Tourists, who would encounter Italian feste on their travels and recreate them at home: “In London it was often Italians who were commissioned to mastermind state-sponsored celebrations, like the stage designer Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni, who created the ill-fated macchina in Green Park in 1749.”

“A fireworks display is like a cabaret act that assaults the senses. Done well, it’s like painting magical pictures in the sky.”

The macchina was a huge temple built of wood and canvas in which an orchestra was hidden, along with equipment to launch fireworks. Unfortunately, an hour into the display, one of the pavilions where the fireworks were kept caught fire, setting off some of the stored fireworks and ruining the display. “After the fiasco of the display in Green Park the Duke of Richmond opportunistically bought the remaining fireworks,” Feluś reveals. “Two weeks later… the Duke staged his own display in the garden of Richmond House and the adjoining Thames.”

The second Duke’s show was a huge success by all accounts. A contemporary engraving (pictured above) depicts some of the pyrotechnic devices used. Sadly, history does not record what type of music, if any, accompanied them. For Michael Lakin, director of Starlight Design Group, the company that has created Goodwood’s firework shows for the past 23 years, music is always the starting point. “I cut the music track first and have in mind the kind of fireworks that will go with it. For something soft and tinkly it might be white flickering stars, while a slow passage might have a Golden Kamuro, with cascading, glittering tendrils.”

When it comes to Goodwood’s displays, as many as 2,000 individual fireworks can be used, launched in time with the music by means of a computerised firing system. The largest fireworks used at Goodwood are 8-inch “shells” – the diameter of a football – fired from mortar tubes.  “A fireworks display is like a cabaret act that assaults the senses,” Lakin adds. “Done well, it’s like painting magical pictures in the sky.”

A spectacular fireworks display takes place on the Friday night of August Bank Holiday Weekend at the Goodwood Racecourse.

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