Prince Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens

Prince Albert photograph by J. J. E. Mayall, 1860. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On 14 December 1861, Queen Victoria’s beloved husband and consort, Prince Albert, died of typhoid at Windsor Castle. Albert was diagnosed with the disease by William Jenner, who, at the time was the world’s acknowledged expert on typhoid fever. Jenner noted that Albert’s abdomen displayed the characteristic purplish-pink or rose spots associated with the fever. A few days after the Prince’s death, talk began about creating a suitable memorial to the popular consort. There were various ideas about what a suitable memorial consisted of and the final decision was written about in a newspaper article that was published in 1863:

“A Royal Commission, composed of the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Clarendon, Sir Charles Eastlake, President of the Royal Academy of Arts, and the Lord Mayor of London, was appointed by the Queen to investigate the obelisk scheme; and the result of their consultations was a report to her Majesty in which such a form of monument was recommended to be abandoned in consequence of the insuperable difficulties which seemed to surround the project – the chief one being the hopelessness of procuring a monolith of sufficient size in a durable material. The commission appended a suggestion that her Majesty should appoint a council of the most eminent artists of the day to investigate the subject and report as to the most fitting and practicable form which the monument to the Prince Consort should assume. The ultimate result was a competition between seven of the architects who had composed the deliberative council; and … they accordingly completed their work, and a magnificent series of designs was laid before her Majesty, who, in conjunction with members of the commission, selected the design … [by] Mr. George Gilbert Scott.”[1]

Albert Memorial. © C.L. Weber.

The memorial erected was placed in Kensington Gardens across from the Royal Albert Hall. It was not the first or only memorial to honor the Prince, but the London memorial Queen Victoria commissioned is one of the most ornate memorials in London. It also took more than ten years to complete because there was great difficulty in getting the necessary supply of marble required for the memorial. It was completed at a cost of £120,000 (the equivalent of over £11,500,000 in 2018), which was paid for through public subscriptions.

Prince Albert who is the most important and central object of the memorial is clothed in robes of the Order of the Garter. He is facing south holding the catalog of “The Great Exhibition,”* an exhibition which he had helped inspire and organize. It was also noted that the exhibition was one of the most important undertakings achieved by the Prince during his lifetime.

Queen Victoria opened Prince Albert’s memorial in July 1872, and shortly after its opening one newspaper reported:

“[Ten years ago, a meeting was convened] to consider the propriety of inviting contributions for the purpose of erecting a lasting memorial to his Royal Highness the prince Consort. … It was felt that the monument should, in some as yet undefined way, typify the personal character of the Prince Consort, and the newspapers of the day teemed with suggestions from all quarters, having that end more or less clearly in view. Presently public opinion settled upon the design … a huge monolith-massive, rugged, strong, and simple withal — appeared to the people to be the most appropriate monument that could raise the memory of the Prince Consort.”[2]

Prince Albert seated. IMG-9615 © C.L. Weber.

Three years later, in 1875, the statue of Albert was ceremonially “seated.” The seating of the statue was said to be extremely difficult:

“[T]he seated position which has been chosen, although presenting difficulties to the sculptor of the gravest nature, owing to the distance from the ground at which the work will be viewed, cannot be regarded as the most suitable for the purpose. If represented standing, the figure would in position repeat the four figures placed on a level with it, against the columns, and also the principal figure in each of the four groups immediately below. This might be fairly termed bad composition; moreover, the figure thus would fail to have the appearance of being enthroned and presiding over all that surrounds it.”[3]

The Prince’s memorial by Scott is in a style known as Gothic Revival, an architectural movement that began in the late 1740s. It stands 176 feet high, is elevated upon a lofty pyramid of steps, and crowned or overshadowed by a lofty spire of “tabernacle work.” The pedestal that supported the seated prince and the podium were created from granite and marble. It also consists of an ornate pavilion over the high altar of a church, and the central part of the memorial is surrounded by the elaborate sculptural Frieze of Parnassus that depicts 169 individual composers, architects, poets, painters, and sculptors.

To complete the 169 individuals, various sculptors were involved: Henry Hugh Armstead carved the musicians and poets on the south side and the painters on the east side. Among the poets and musicians represented are Rossini, Cervantes, Dante, Homer, Gluck, Handel, Mendelssohn, Haydn, and Beethoven. Some of the painters represented are Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Rembrandt, Raphael, Michael Angelo, Titian, Claude, David, Delacroix (Ferdinand Victor Eguene), and Gérard. John Birnie Philip carved the sculptors on the west side and the architects on the north side. Some of the sculptors were Chares, Donatello, Michael Angelo, Cellini, Cibber, Gibbons, Canova, and Thorwaldsen, while architects included such people as Pugin, Wren, Sansovino, de Coucy, and Libon.

Allegoric sculpture for manufacturers. IMG-9620 © C.L. Weber.

There are also allegorical sculptures at each corner of the central area that depict the Victorian industrial arts and sciences (agriculture, manufactures, commerce, and engineering). The agriculture group completed by Scottish sculptor W. Calder Marshall is located on the southwest angle and has the principal figure crowned with a wreath of corn. There is also a shepherd with a lamb on his arms and an ewe standing at his side. The manufactures group was completed by English sculptor Henry Weekes and placed on the southeast podium angle. The principal figure is pointing to a beehive and holding in her hand an hourglass. There is a smith standing on one side and weaver on the other. Commerce is located on the northeast angle and was created by another English sculptor named Thomas Thornycroft. It has the principal figure holding a cornucopia in her left hand and on her right side is a young merchant, who balances scales. The figure seated brings corn and the Oriental merchant holds a casket of jewels. Irish sculptor John Lawlor completed the engineering group. It is placed on the northwest angle of the podium. A female figure is standing above the other figures with one hand resting on the steam cylinder. There is youthful figure in front holding a compass, a navy (a laborer employed in the excavation and construction of a road, railroad, or canal) seated, and on the other side is a kneeling figure holding a cogwheel. At the back of the group is a steam hammer and blast furnace.

Europe sculpture. IMG-9605 © C.L. Weber.

Four other sculptures are located at each corner on the outer edge to represent the continents of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. The first of the four sculptures on the outer edge is the Europe sculpture placed on the South-West pedestal and created by a Belfast-born British sculptor named Patrick Macdowell. It has five female figures and a bull. The central figure typifies the continent and holds in her right hand a scepter and an orb in her left hand. The figure representing England is seated, France is shown holding a sword, Germany is shown in a thoughtful attitude with a book open on her knee, and Italy is shown as if waking from a dream, a reference at the time to her recent union with that kingdom and to Italy’s former greatness.

The Asia group is located on the South-east pedestal by Irish sculptor John Henry Foley. It has a central lone figure seated on a prostrate elephant, “and the action of removing her veil is an allusion to the important display of the products of Asia, which was made at the Great Exhibition in 1851.”[4] The surrounding figures are “the art manufacturer of China holding his specimen of porcelain; the warrior of India … with his weapons; and the Arab merchant resting on his camel saddle, with the Koran beside him.”[5]

Africa Sculpture. IMG-9633 © C.L. Weber.

Africa is placed on the North-east pedestal and created by English sculptor William Theed. The principal figure is an Egyptian princess seated on a camel, which was chosen because it was considered indispensable for traveling in the African desert and served as a means of communication for traders. To the right of the Egyptian princess stands a Nubian with his hand resting on a half-buried statue. To the left of the princess is a seated figure that represents the merchants of the northern states of Africa. There is also a black man leaning on his bow that represents the uncivilized races of the African continent, and he is listening to the teachings given by the female figure typifying European civilization. 

Americas sculpture. IMG-9587 © C.L. Weber.

The British sculptor John Bell completed the Americas group. It is located on the North-west pedestal. The central figure is a female Native American Indian dressed in native costume and wearing a feathered headdress. She is seated on a bison, charging through the prairie, and she is holding in her right hand a feather lance and placed on her left arm, she is carrying a shield with “the eagle for the States, the beaver for Canada, the lone star for Chili, the volcanoes for Mexico; the alpaca for Peru, and the south cross for Brazil.”[6] The group also shows that “their advance is directed by the United States on the one side, while, on the other, Canada attends them, pressing the Rose of England to her breast. … Mexico [is shown] rising from a trance, and South American equipped for the chace.”[7]

Other interesting details about the memorial were also provided in an 1872 newspaper article:

“The architect tells us that there have been used in the work 120,000 cubic feet of concrete; that the sub-plinths of the bases of the columns are two stones, each weighing 10 tons, the bases themselves being single blocks of stone weighing 15 tons each; that the working of each of these stones occupied twelve men for sixteen weeks … that the blocks forming the capitals weighed in their rough state 13 1/4 tons each; that the blocks of Portland stone forming the arches weighed from 5 to 8 stones each; that the length of polished granite used is 791 feet, and is composed of 56 stones; that the pavement of the platform covers a surface of 23,803 square feet; that there are 1,803 steps, and that if a man were to undertake to walk their continuous length he would have travelled two miles and a quarter when he had accomplished his journey; that beneath the steps are 396 piers and 868 arches; that the iron girder which carries the fleche, or spire, weighs 23 tons, and supports a weight of 210 tons.[8]

Section of the iron work. IMG-9625 © C.L. Weber.

In 1876, the memorial was surrounded by a fence of ironwork, which was restored in 2000. Scott chose Francis Skidmore and his firm, “The Art Manufactures and Constructive Iron Company” to create it. Skidmore used copper and lead-covered iron, and of Skidmore’s creation Scott remarked:

“No nobler work in metal for architectural purposes has, so far as I know, been produced in our own or probably considering its scale and extent, in any other age; nor do I think that any living man but Mr. Skidmore could have produced such work.”[9]

A life devoted to the public good. IMG-9601 © C.L. Weber.

A dedicatory inscription wraps around the memorial. It is executed in mosaic, and the letters are of blue glass with black edges and placed upon a background of gold enameled glass as shown in the accompanying photo to the right. It reads:

“Queen Victoria and her people to the memory of Albert, Prince consort, as a tribute of their gratitude for a life devoted to the public good.”[10]

*The Great Exhibition was also known as “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” or the “Crystal Palace Exhibition” because the exhibition was held in the temporary structure called the Crystal Palace. The Great Exhibition was an international exhibition in a series of World’s Fairs that became popular during the nineteenth century and was also the first exhibition of manufactured products.

References:

  • [1] Illustrated London news, “The National Prince Consort Memorial,” July 11, 1863, p. 26.
  • [2] Wicklow News-Letter and Country Advertiser, “The Prince Consort Memorial in Hyde Park, London,” July 6, 1872, p. 2.
  • [3] Handbook to the Prince Consort National Memorial (John Murray, 1877), p. 78.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 23.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 24–25.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 24.
  • [8] Wicklow News-Letter and Country Advertiser, p. 2
  • [9] The Architect, Volume 10, 1873, p. 304.
  • [10] Handbook to the Prince Consort National Memorial, p. 19.

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