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  • Icebergs at Vauxhall
  • Russell A. Potter (bio)

When one contemplates Victorian ecosystems, London stands in a class by itself. From time immemorial, it appears, on both sides of Father Thames's twisting byways, London has manufactured its own atmosphere, its own weather, its own world; as Guppy in Bleak House says, the fog—among other things—is entirely a "London particular" (20). And yet, despite the smoke of a hundred thousand chimney-pots and the stench of a river that, in the "Great Stink" of 1858, was said to cause passers-by to suffer fainting spells, vomiting, and apoplectic fits, some of the more remarkable ecosystems of this noted city existed, as it were, as islands in the storm of industrial gasses and human effluvia (Johnson 205).

In the debates over the site and structure of the Great Exhibition of 1851, it became common to refer to London's parks as the "lungs" of the great metropolis (British Metropolis 244). And yet none of these parks, from Hampstead Heath to Hyde Park to Penge Common, was precisely "natural." They had been carved willy-nilly out of old royal estates and private parks, and their woods, their avenues, and their gardens were as constructed as any buildings, to be pulled down and reconceived at least as often. And yet more, in several of these seemingly natural areas, there also arose, Xanadu-like, parks of pleasure and spectacle, whose attractions were anything and everything but natural. From the polar bears at the Regent's Park Zoo to the nightly eruptions of Vesuvius at Surrey Gardens, the denizens of a city already blessed with a surfeit of wonders sought still new ones in the open air. And it is these miniature ecosystems—built, assuredly, with human appetites in mind and supplied with water, illumination, fireworks, and steam—that have always seemed to me to provide the quintessential scenery of the Victorian era. The rationally planned parks of the eighteenth century, with their Temples of Worthies and geometrical hedges, made way for a strange new progeny of artificial wonders that, aided by cover of darkness, drew an entirely different sort of crowd.

Vauxhall Gardens was certainly the best known of these, and one of the longest lived. In its original eighteenth-century configuration, it offered both a large strolling garden with formal allées and hedges among which one could [End Page 27] take a leisurely walk, as well as a venue for music and dancing. Its built features included fountains, a "Turkish Tent," a pavilion whose interior was paneled with mirrors, and a building which hosted musical entertainments and an area for outside dining. Fireworks were an early and regular attraction, and nighttime attendance was encouraged with what were said to be twenty thousand outdoor lamps (a claim which was later to climb into the millions). Indeed, as Dickens noted in his 1836 sketch "Vauxhall by Day," the Gardens were only truly made alive by the flickering magic of illuminated night; what in darkness had seemed wonders were merely tawdry frameworks: "Vauxhall by day-light! A porter-pot without porter, the House of Commons without the Speaker, a gas-lamp without the gas—pooh, nonsense, the thing was not to be thought of " (Sketches 117).

Their nocturnal luminescence was not the only thing that made the Gardens a place apart, and indeed practically an ecosphere in miniature. Time and place were toyed with: the Battle of Waterloo was re-enacted; a scale model of Moscow, complete with a papier-mâché Kremlin, was burned to the ground; and the Siege of Acre was recreated. And, on any given evening, a plethora of side spectacles was available: balloonists, some of them on horseback, ascended in droves; acrobatic clowns did handstands on horseback; a "Ballet Theatre" exhibited moving panoramas; and a hermit with a false beard was ensconced in his own proprietary cave from which, for a modest fee, he would emerge and write one's fortune on a cream-coloured card.

And yet the most remarkable transformation of Vauxhall was yet to come. On at least two occasions, in 1834 and again in 1838, the Gardens were transformed into an Arctic wilderness as the...


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