Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - Vauxhall

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VAUXHALL 

THE earliest notions I ever had of Vauxhall were formed from an old coloured print which decorated a bed-room at home, and represented the Gardens as they were in the time of hoops and high head-dresses, bag-wigs, and swords. The general outline was almost that of the present day, and the disposition of the orchestra, firework-ground, and covered walks the same. But the Royal Property was surrounded by clumps of trees and pastures: shepherds smoked their pipes where the tall chimneys of Lambeth now pour out their dense encircling clouds, to blight or blacken every attempt at vegetation in the neighbourhood: and where the rustics played cricket at the water-side, massive arches and mighty girders bear the steaming, gleaming, screaming train on its way to the new terminus.
    I had a vague notion, also, of the style of entertainments there offered. In several old pocket-books and magazines, that were kept covered with mould and cobwebs in a damp spare-room closet, I used to read the ballads put down as "sung by Mrs. Wrighten at Vauxhall." They were not very extraordinary compositions. Here is one, which may be taken as a sample of all, called a 
    [-150-] RONDEAU

Sung by MRS. WEICHSEL. Set by MR. HOOK.

Maidens, let your lovers languish,
If you'd have them constant prove
Doubts and fears, and sighs and anguish,
Are the chains that fasten love.
Jacky
woo'd, and I consented,
Soon as e'er I heard his tale,
He with conquest quite contented,
Boasting, rov'd around the vale.
Maidens, let your lovers, &c.

Now he dotes on scornful Molly,
Who rejects him with disdain;
Love's a strange bewitching folly,
Never pleased without some pain,
Maidens, let your lovers, &c.

     I was also told of hundreds of thousands of lamps, and an attempt was made to imitate their effect by pricking pinholes in the picture, and putting a light behind it - for the glass had disappeared at some remote period, and had never been replaced; and for years I looked forward to going to Vauxhall, as a treat too magnificent ever to take place.
    The time came, though, at last - not until I was twelve years old: and then it was to celebrate my having moved head-boy from the division form into the fourth, at Merchant Tailor's School. Twenty years have gone by, this summer, since that eventful night, but the impression made upon me is as vivid as it was on the following day. I remember being shown the lights of the orchestra twinkling through the trees, [-151-] from the road, and hearing the indistinct crash of the band as I waited for all our party, literally trembling with expectation at the pay place. Then there came the dark passage, which I hurried along with feelings almost of awe: and finally the bewildering coup d'oeil, as the dazzling walk before the great supper-room, with its balloons, and flags, and crowns of light-its panels of looking-glass, and long lines of radiant stars, festoons, and arches, burst upon me and took away my breath, with almost every other faculty. I could not speak. I heard nothing that was said to me; and if anybody had afterwards assured me that I entered the Garden upon my head instead of my heels I could scarcely have contradicted them. I have never experienced anything like the intensity of that feeling but once since; and that was when I caught the first sight of London by night from a great elevation, during the balloon ascent last year which so nearly terminated in the destruction of all our party.
    The entire evening was to me one scene of continuous enchantment. The Battle of Waterloo was being represented on the firework-ground, and I could not divest myself of the idea that it was a real engagement I was witnessing, as the sharpshooters fired from behind the trees, the artillery-waggon blew up, and the struggle and conflagration took place at Hougomont. When I stood years afterwards on the real battle-field I was disappointed in its effect. I thought it ought to have been a great deal more like Vauxhall.
    The supper was another great feature - eating by the light of variegated lamps, with romantic views painted on the walls, and music playing all the time, was on a level with the most brilliant entertainment described [-152-] in the maddest, wildest traditions of Eastern story-tellers. And as the "rack punch" - "racking" would be a better term - was imbibed, until all the lamps formed a revolving firework of themselves, what little sense of the real and actual I had retained, departed altogether. I broke some wine-glasses, I danced with the waiter in the red coat, and finally I tumbled down, from which point my reminiscences are hazy and confused. I remember the next morning, though, being called by the kind relative who had taken me at half past five - half-past five after going to bed upon rack punch at two! and starting on my way to school with a headache that appeared to be pulling my brain into halves. I had to go for my books to the house of the master with whom I boarded. I got there before anybody was up, and not daring to knock or ring. I sat upon the door-step at the end of Newcastle Court, College Hill, and went to sleep. It was all cold, and grey, and dreary - a rough foretaste of the many disenchantments that pleasures have since brought in their train.
    Amongst the unrevealed mysteries of London, is the hybernal existence of Vauxhall. What becomes of it in the depth of winter? People see the blackened tops of the skeleton trees rising above the palings of Kennington Lane and the chimneys of Lambeth, and therefore suppose it still to be in the same place; but no one appears ever to have gained its interior. An imaginative mind, tinged with superstition, can fancy fearful scenes going on there in dark January. It can picture the cold bright frosty moon shedding a ghastly light upon the almost rained-out Constantinople or Venice, as the case may be; and glistening on the [-153-] icicles depending from the nostrils of Neptune's horses, or the hair of the Eve at the fountain. The cutting wind whistles through the airy abode of Joel il Diavolo. The snow is deep upon the ground, capping the orchestra also, and drifting into the supper boxes; whilst a few spectral leaves, on which the light of many a summer orgy whilome rested, chase one another with pattering noise along the covered promenades, or whiffle about amongst the decaying benches of the firework gallery. It is impossible to conceive anything more dreary - a wet November Sunday, in a grave family at Clapham, is nothing to it.
    If there were any supernatural anniversary in England, as the first of May is upon the Hartz mountains, Vauxhall would be the trysting-place of the spirits at such a season. Wild unearthly dances of spectral girls and demon Gents would be held upon the platform. Blue corpse-candle lights would gleam from the lamps; and bands of waiting apparitions would troop along the walks with cold phantom fowls and necromantic films of ham, through which the touch could pass as through air. Music would resound from the orchestra, played and sung by shadowy professors, such as followed Burger's Lenora in her unearthly ride, and resembling the incantation melodies of "Der Freyschutz," "Robert le Diable," "Macbeth," and the "Mountain Sylph," all played at once. Death on the pale horse would ride ceaselessly round the arena in place of Caroline, Louise Tournaire, or Marie Macarte, and His Sable Highness himself, the true Prince of Darkness, might be found excelling "dat child" Juba in his active exercises, or outrivalling Pell on the crossbones. There is no telling what might not be seen by [-154-] the daring wight who invaded the dead wintry seclusion of Vauxhall.
    If I may be permitted to quote myself, I once described Vauxhall as a perennial, whose progress was always to be watched with interest. Summer goes by and its glories fade; its fruits - which are the lamps -  are gathered; and the whole place becomes a dismal waste. It is always in this off-season that the whispers alluded to are promulgated, about Vauxhall being "built upon." We look at the hapless orchestra, seen through the grimy branches, as a doomed thing; the very sight of the wooden porticos, with their scraps of placards relating to past festivals, is distressing; and the hazardous scaffolding of the daring gentleman, who, all on fire, shoots down the rope, with its winter-beaten forlorn flag which has never been removed, is regarded with a sense of ghastliness almost akin to that with which in former times one would have looked upon the gibbets that held the men in chains. Anon as Whitsuntide comes round, we find that Vauxhall springs up again, with all its coloured posting-bills, as gay as a fuchsia that has been cut down for hybernation. The lamps bud out again upon their accustomed wires; the hermit returns to life - I wonder what becomes of him at Christmas, and if he employs all the winter months in writing the fortunes he distributes in the summer ones - and the brass band once more wakes the echoes of the promenades and dark walks. The Gardens are then found to be still a great fact - not yet desecrated into dwellings for luxuriating clerks or vinegar, chimney-tile, and composite candle manufactories. Despite its hacknied amusements, we have all pleasant associations connected with Vauxhall: I [-155-] would not willingly exchange my own for dearer reminiscences of things far more important in the romance of life. It is at least pleasant, when jaded, baited, and spirit-wearied, to think that there really was a time when the lamps were regarded - not as little glass vessels with smoky wicks and common oil within, but as terrestrial stars, lighted by fairy hands, and fitted only to shed their radiance round, as did the dazzling and tempting fruit of Aladdin's subterranean garden. It is refreshing to know there was a period, up to which the Arabian Nights Entertainments had only been pictured with a magnificence depending upon the powers of the reader's imagination; but that, after its arrival, the glories awaiting upon the careers of Nourreddin, Camaralzaman, Ali Baba, the Calenders, Prince Bahman, Codadad, and all the rest of our old friends, could be readily conjured up. The night-palaces so gorgeously lighted up - the wonderful music - and the dancing slaves, formed together so many Vauxhalls, peopled with coryph?es and brass bands, and pitched upon the twinkling banks of the Tigris instead of the Thames.
    I still like to be deceived - to deceive myself even, rather than not give way sometimes to the power of illusion. So when I see it announced that on the occasion of an especial Vauxhall festival, there will be twenty thousand additional lamps, I take it for granted that there will be that exact number to a wick. If I find, on various occasions, that the Gardens will be adorned with emblematical devices, I anticipate looking at them. Cold experience tells me that if it is an Irish f?te all the old harps and shamrocks will come out again; if a Scottish one, I shall find huge illu-[-156-]minated thistles, and the motto Auld Lang Syne similarly glittering; and if a juvenile one, that sparkling tops, kites, and rocking-horses, will be fixed against the trees. But I do not let my mind dwell on these facts: I strive to forget them, and enjoy the devices as keenly as the most excitable of the visitors in whose especial honour they are intended. When I hear, on great anniversaries, that two hundred Highland chieftains have promised to attend in their national costumes, and dance flings, yell, and play the bagpipes, I make myself fully expect to meet them; and if it is said, on the occasion of masquerades, that the most splendid fancy-dresses, worn at the Royal and Noble Bals Costum?s, of the season, will be worn in the Gardens, I like to believe it, and go anticipating the effect of their appearance. True it is, that the reality will sometimes fall short of the expectation; but this is a result so purely natural, that it never annoys me. If I do not meet the Pibroch of Pibroch, or the Pladdie of Pladdie, or the Sawney of Sawney, with their retainers, but find, in their stead, two or three gentlemen in kilts, trying not to look ashamed of themselves, I invent a reason for the non-appearance of the chieftains. And if the costumes at a Bal Masqu? do not exactly impress me with ideas of a Court ball, I feel assured that the patrician dresses would have been there but for the bad weather.
    It is possible that the deities who, in the mythological days of old, took the vegetable world under their protection, may still exist in the trees of Vauxhall. If it be true - and I have no reason for saying it is not, seeing that the statement is made in "Lempriere," which is a collection of traditions worthy of belief, and [-157-] instilled by cane and imposition into youthful minds - that these graceful Hamadryads co-exist with the trees they affect, drooping with their decline, and expiring with their death, without the power of changing their abode, I fear that the days of Vauxhall are numbered - at least as Gardens. Their topmost branches have long presented nothing to the view but bare forks, which pruning and lopping does not improve. They have arrived, in their age, at a parallel to that fatal time of man's life, when tipping his hair does not keep it from falling off, or make it grow the faster. It is possible, in the spirit of the age, that these very trees may ultimately be cut down to build the houses hereafter to be erected on the Royal Property. But this, I opine, would be a dangerous experiment. Like the Laputa cucumbers that absorbed the sunbeams, their timbers must have imbibed, in their time, so much light and revelry, that they would be giving this out constantly afterwards; and the domestic disturbances that scared the inmates of Woodstock in 1649 - the candles, and noises, and horses' hoofs, and fireworks, as chronicled by Glanvil - would be nothing to the excitement created in the ill-starred mansions.
    And yet, to descend to the real and practical, it is possible the time may arrive when "Vauxhall Terrace," or "Kennington Place," may occupy the site of the Italian Walk - when "Lambeth Square" may rise from the firework - ground, or "Southampton Circus" define the former position of the equestrian arena. For old gentlemen of our own time there abiding, there will still be some consolation. They will be able to recall former days, and feel young again, as, according [-158-] to their situation, they point out the dining-room sideboard as the site of the bar through whose window the legendary rack punch and ham of other days was once handed; the front area and coal-cellar as the identical position of the ball-room; or the library as covering part of the area on which the Battle of Waterloo was fought, and the balloons and rockets went up for the edification of the hundreds who paid in the gallery, and the thousands who enjoyed the same treat in the road, for nothing.

ALBERT SMITH.

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