The Victorians Built A Working Volcano Off The Walworth Road

By M@
The Victorians Built A Working Volcano Off The Walworth Road

This is what Kennington looked like in 1846...

In that year, 'the largest picture ever painted' went on show at the Surrey Zoological Gardens. The scene is, of course, the Bay of Naples, with that city to the left and the brooding presence of Vesuvius in the distance.

The painting was installed over a boating lake, so visitors could paddle through the duckweed and pretend they were off the Italian coast, rather than five minutes from the Walworth Road.

It was the work of a Mr Danson, a specialist in painting realistic panoramas. As a reporter said at the time, 'the picture blends so well with the surrounding realities of sky, water, trees and shrubs, that, at the distance of 300 yards, it is difficult to point out where art ends and nature begins'.

The painting aped reality in other ways. At dusk, Vesuvius would appear to erupt with smoke, fire and 'subterranean thunder' — a spectacle that Londoners flocked to see in their thousands.

The Surrey Zoological Gardens were a popular south London attraction for much of the Victorian period. Beside the giant, interactive canvases, visitors could also see lions, giraffes and rhinos, and promenade around the exotic gardens. A 12,000-seat music hall was the largest venue in London at the time.

The site is now covered by Pasley Park, Walworth Garden and the surrounding streets. The amateur geologist will find no evidence of pyroclastic flows or igneous rock.

Image: Illustrated London News, 16 May 1846. (c) Illustrated London News Group/, via the British Newspaper Archive.

Last Updated 22 March 2023