Simon Marcus Gower
The wealth of the British royal family is considerable, but decorum generally guides it not to be too ostentatious and obvious about the depths of its riches. Depths of bereavement though can change this and one such example stands out extravagantly and prominently in London. It marks the loss felt by a queen many decades ago but it still stands today as a highly decorated memorial to a departed prince.
Queen Victoria evidently was totally captivated by her husband, Prince Albert. And when he died at the early age of 42, she was devastated. When Albert died in the middle of December 1861, Victoria had been on the English throne for a little less than 15 years. She went on to reign for 40 more years until her death in January of 1901. After her husband’s death, though, her reign was that of a recluse queen.
At the time of his death, the cause of Albert’s demise was diagnosed as typhoid fever. Modern-day analysis, however, shows that his lengthy illness may have been due to other causes, with cancer being suggested. But whatever the cause, Victoria went into decades of mourning — wearing nothing but black, shunning public appearances and apparently even keeping her dead husband’s clothes laid out, as if he might return one day to wear them again.
Eventually, Victoria’s deep and dark mourning led to public criticism; she was after all queen of a nation and a growing empire. Such criticisms came later in her reign after decades away from her people. In the 1860s and early 1870s there was evidently sufficient sympathy for her bereavement, enough to support her in commissioning a large and extravagant monument as a memorial to her lost husband.
Various designs were put forward but two eventual main contenders emerged that were then presented to the queen in 1863. In April of that year the queen gave her royal approval to the design by the architect George Gilbert Scott. His design was Gothic in style with a tall tower-like canopy covering a statue of Albert. This is religious architecture — the canopy is in effect a ciborium, which is more commonly found in churches covering the altar. The religious overtones are added to by the placement of a cross at the top of the spire of the piece.
This memorial, then, seems to accurately reflect the quite religious dedication that Victoria had to her lost husband. This, to the modern eye, may seem overdone. The decoration is very ornate and the symbolism of the seated figure at the center of the piece, which ordinarily would be received for the holiness of a church altar, suggests a level of hagiography that is rather over the top.
However, public opinion seemed to be accepting of this high level of, practically, worship. The cost of erecting this memorial was considerable — at the time amounting to 120,000 pounds sterling, which converted to modern-day pricing would be something like $15 million. This high price was met by public contributions, indicating that by the early to mid-1870s public sympathy and respect for the memory of Albert was still in place.
Victoria herself opened the memorial in July of 1872 but the centerpiece of the memorial that we see today — the shining statue of Albert seated regally — was not yet in place.
This may have been in part because the statue had a rather checkered history. A first version was made my Carlo Marochetti but Gilbert Scott, the architect, rejected it. Marochetti then died in 1867 and a second sculptor, John Henry Foley, was given the task of creating the statue. A model was placed in the memorial but the finished statue was not cast until after Foley’s death in 1874.
But, of course, to complete the monument, the statue of Albert had to be in place. Sitting as it does under the spire-like Gothic canopy, which rises to over 50 meters in height, the statue attracts the eye. Its bright gilt bronze practically dazzles. The statue faces another famous landmark that bears the prince’s name. Across the road from the memorial stands the Royal Albert Hall. Though the Royal Albert Hall is large, the gilt bronze statue is an equally large and symbolic tribute the Victoria’s prince.
Albert is posed seated but somehow looks like he is about to rise from his seat. A key feature of the statue is the fact that he is holding a catalog of the Great Exhibition. Held in 1851, Albert was a prime mover in making the Great Exhibition a success in London. The full title of this premier achievement for Albert was the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry and All Nations, this then, perhaps, hints at something of an explanation for the quite astounding collection of statues and sculptures that surround Albert and almost seem to be placed as subordinate to him.
The least exciting of the surrounding statues are the four groups of human figures that stand at the corners of Albert’s seat. They represent agriculture, commerce, engineering and manufacturing, but far more astounding is the frieze of more than 150 figures that seem to crowd around beneath Albert. This frieze is an incredible collection of portraits of great architects, authors, composers, painters, poets, playwrights and sculptors. They almost seem like huddled masses beneath the lonely and much larger figure of Albert. Are we to take it that Albert was greater than them and they somehow pay tribute to him?
Further out from the frieze are four more grouped statues that impress as much as Albert’s gilt bronze figure but again they seem to be there as tribute to the prince. They represent the four continents of Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe. A varied and interesting collection of human figures are gathered around animals that are there to represent the continents — a camel for Africa, a buffalo for the Americas, an elephant for Asia and a bull for Europe.
Although all are subordinate to Albert, who almost seems to glow under his canopy, he did not always glow. Incredibly, looking at the shiny gilt finish we see today, for a long, long time the statue of Albert was in fact painted black. Some said that this paint was applied to better hide the statue from German bombing raids; this seems unlikely as the monument in totality is enough of a target. After recent restoration it was concluded that the black paint was applied to protect the statue from pollution.
Today, though, Albert shines out from his seated, canopied place looking across to the Royal Albert Hall. It is really quite over the top and opulent but it is also a remarkable collection of craftsmanship and sculptural excellence and a wonder of London’s amazing cultural heritage.