Albert, the reluctant exhibit

The Albert Memorial
January 26, 2001

In the midst of a daunting series of articles, broadcasts and exhibitions celebrating the death of Queen Victoria, it is worth reflecting on Albert, whose influence was great before his death in 1861. The adjective Albertian has been attached, not very convincingly, to the 21 years between the royal marriage in 1840 and his funeral. Yet, there was a sense both of public and private loss. "To live without him is really no life," the queen exclaimed, adding that her only wish was "to follow him soon". In fact, she was to live far longer than she believed possible, another 40 years, and long before she died in 1901 there was no doubt that "Victorian" was the right adjective to apply to the reign.

Albert did not want a memorial. When it had been suggested that he should figure in a memorial to celebrate the Great Exhibition, he wrote that he did not wish to be so depicted. It would "both disturb my quiet rides in Rotten Row to see my own face staring at me, and if (as very likely) it became an artistic monstrosity like most of our monuments, it would upset my equanimity to be prematurely ridiculed and laughed at in effigy". It was agreed that a figure of Victoria should take his place, and only after his premature death did the queen succeed, against his declared wishes, in having him restored. Henry Cole, sometimes described flatteringly as "a prince consort in miniature", already had ambitious plans for "Albertopolis", and the placing of the exhibition memorial, but it was not until 1867 that the queen laid the foundation stone of what was then called the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences. Designed by engineers Francis Fowke and Henry Scott, it was not completed until 1871. There was some derision then, though not drawing in Albert. For one correspondent of The Times , the hall could be compared with nothing but a Strasbourg pie with a glass crust. He added that he hoped that the contents would be half as good.

The stories of the Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial, designed by George Gilbert Scott, are quite different, although both now enjoy the same scene and both were directly related to the Great Exhibition. John Physick's chapter on "Albertopolis: the estate of the 1851 commissioners" is essential reading for those historians who, like journalists, are less interested in aesthetics than in cultural politics and the accompanying scandals, many of which centred on Cole, who attempted "to pre-empt the commemoration of Albert" and was "a considerable thorn in the flesh for Gilbert Scott". Whether Cole would have approved of the shape of this excellent book, The Albert Memorial , is immaterial. Long and narrow, shaped like a bed, it is almost impossible to read in bed, and Albert and Cole would have thought that entirely proper.

The book, like Victoria's reign, is divided into three parts - "Life and image", "Making the memorial" and "Saving the memorial". It is specific and full of new details, and the lavish illustrations have been superbly chosen and reproduced, with chromolithography providing the most dazzling form of expression. Hermione Hobhouse, familiar with all aspects of Albert's life (and with the work of the Commission of the Great Exhibition), emphasises the fact that the memorial was "not only a tribute from a widowed queen, but also from her people". Chris Brooks, chairman of the Victorian Society, who edits and introduces the volume, penetrates beneath the surface of events and attitudes and examines carefully the modes and manners of representing Albert during his lifetime, comparing the representations of him in Punch and The Illustrated London News . His mocking account of the "Albert Hat", always funnier than the ultimately caricatured memorial, still provides as much fun as the Albert Memorial once did. This chapter by itself directs attention to the fact that in the 1850s, Albert and Victoria must always be considered together. Although there is one powerful picture from The Illustrated London News of May 1854 that, showing Albert and Victoria human size at the launch, isolates the depicted Albert as a striking figurehead raised above the scene.

During the Crimean war, presenting Albert raised more complex (and often older) issues than those raised at the Great Exhibition, and Brooks notes percepti-vely that before Albert died, both the ILN and Punch were paying increasing attention to "the younger royals". The rush after his death to own an image of the late consort was, he suggests, not entirely securely, "the first manifestation of the commemorative impulse that was soon to be felt at every level of British culture". Surely Sir Robert Peel, who deeply impressed Albert, had been there before him - and, indeed, Wellington too, not to speak of Sir Walter Scott, whose own memorial in Edinburgh is rightly often compared with the Albert Memorial.

Gavin Stamp next appears in Brooks's gallery of writers, introducing, in sprightly fashion, the second part of the volume on "Making the memorial", ending his chapter appropriately with a 1962 cover from Private Eye called "Britain's first man into space - Albert Gristle awaits blast off". Stamp focuses on George Gilbert Scott, his motivations, aspirations and achievements, but incorporates a fascinating illustration of some of the alternative entries for the competition that Scott won. It was a third Victorian periodical, The Builder , that served as an essential source in the writing of this chapter, which traces the beginnings of the contemporary critique of the memorial - "cold contempt", not derision, and its transformation into the feeling that the memorial was both a joke and an outrage. He might have quoted the great cartoonist Osbert Lancaster who observed at the time of the Festival of Britain in 1951 that "there is no better way of studying the fluctuations of the 20th-century zeitgeist than to compare the attitudes adopted by the various generations to the Victorian era".

Detailed essays on the engineering and construction history of the memorial follow. The first, by Robert Thorne, notes Scott's use of ironwork and the contribution made to the building by engineers F. W. Shields and John Kelk and by the "wayward" metal-worker Francis Skidmore, all rescued here for posterity. Thorne incorporates revealing photographs of the memorial under construction. Benedict Read, with his detailed knowledge of Victorian sculpture, concentrates on questions of design and on the choices open to the sculptors, with Teresa Sladen writing learnedly on the eclectic mosaics, leaving Colin Cunningham in one of the best chapters in the book to relate iconography to Victorian values, the latter brought out deliberately in every section of the memorial. Every detail counts. Thus, the inclusion of humility, a veiled woman, on a royal memorial merits special attention, although surely its inclusion is not evidence of a contribution made by Victoria and Albert to "the democratisation of royalty". That was neither their object nor their achievement.

To understand the range of "sermons in stone" it is essential, as Cunningham explains, to consult James Dufforne's The Albert Memorial in Hyde Park: Its History and Description , published in 1878. Dufforne himself could be surprisingly critical, as the most sensitive proponents of Victorian values often were. Referring to an architectural group labelled "Manufactures" and showing factory girls, he observes that "the lives of industry in our great manufacturing towns, where the noise of the shuttle almost puts to silence the gossip of the busy workers, is not the most genial atmosphere for fostering such healthy-looking and attractive females as the sculptor (Henry Weekes) has here introduced".

To many readers of this book, the most interesting chapters will be the final three, which look at how the Albert Memorial was saved. Its late-Victorian fortunes were varied, even more so the repairs policies that followed in the 20th century. Moreover, few officials recognised that gilding was an essential element in Scott's design and that without it, a memorial full of messages would look dull. Michael Turner, Alasdair Glass and Mike Corfield tell the story of why and how English Heritage began work on the memorial in 1994. They write with inside knowledge, as does Jocelyn Stevens in his foreword which recalls the son et lumière presentation of the restoration, when Queen Elizabeth described the event as "a triumph", and Judi Dench as Queen Victoria uttered that queen's poignant words: "One day, dearest Albert, everyone will see you as I do."

Lord Briggs recently published a new edition of The Age of Improvement.

The Albert Memorial: The Prince Consort National Memorial: its History, Contexts and Conservation

Author - Chris Brooks
ISBN - 0 300 07311 9
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 435

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