RIP Prince Albert: Reading The 1862 International Exhibition as an Object Obituary
On the 14th December 1861, the death of Prince Albert was announced to a startled nation:
The nation has just sustained the greatest loss that could possible have fallen upon it. Prince Albert… – this man, the very centre of our social system, the pillar of our state, is suddenly snatched from us…It is not merely a prominent figure that will be missed on public occasions;… it is the loss of a public man whose services to this country, though rendered neither in the field of battle nor in the arena of crowded assemblies, have yet been of inestimable value to this nation…1.
Albert’s tragically unexpected death and the impact it had on his wife, Queen Victoria, is well-trodden ground for any nineteenth-century historian worth their salt. Indeed, any fifteen year old G.C.S.E History student (lucky enough to have been set free in the rolling fields of Victorian Britain) will be able to tell you how the broken hearted Queen went into mourning for the rest of her substantial life and refused to wear anything but black – without knowing it, your average student has suddenly become a design historian!
Yes, the commonly churned out comments about Victoria’s obsession with black in the second half of the nineteenth century are design historical reflections on the impact that the death of Prince Albert had on the material choices of the Queen. But, this is just the beginning! Albert’s death had far reaching material consequences throughout the UK, British Empire and the world. Therefore today, 152 years after Albert’s death, we are presented with the perfect opportunity to take stock and reflect upon the impact of Albert’s death on the material culture of the nineteenth century (in particular the 1862 International Exhibition) and re-write his obituary in material form.
When Prince Albert had initially accepted Queen Victoria’s proposal of marriage in 1839, it had been difficult for Albert to gain the trust and respect of the British people. However, this oft-ridiculed outsider, through indefatigable hard work and dedication to his causes, steadily earned the admiration of the scientific, artistic and cultural establishment. Many of the multitude of tributes paid to Albert on his death, such as the one quoted above, could be cynically viewed as queen-pleasing, guilty-feeling, hypocritical-press eulogies – but this toadying aside, there were people in many quarters (particularly in the arts and sciences) who keenly felt his loss. Examining the physical legacy, the objects left behind in this shocked wake of Albert’s death, is an extremely revealing exercise that provides insights into the man himself and what his contemporaries thought about him.
The range of responses to Albert’s death produced an overwhelming array of different materials for us to examine. In the nineteenth-century death became a visible event, in which everybody had to participate and perform. Strict rules of etiquette governed public and private life. Clothing became an important signifier; the colour black silently indicated that someone close to the wearer had died. In the wake of Albert’s sudden death an unprecedented demand for black material exploded, leading to the development of a cheaper cotton-silk mix becoming known as ‘Albert crape’. Additionally, a busy industry grew up to provide the means of engaging in the display of mourning, with products that catered to every budget. This mourning card (see fig. 1, left) came ready framed to be hung at home.
Manufacturers were able to reproduce his image upon all sorts of ordinary objects, from textiles to ceramics; this example of a plate (see fig. 2, right) with Albert at the centre has cartouches all around the rim that document his life, achievements and important dates. The ease of transfer-printing meant that the manufacturer was able to respond quickly to this sudden event and the public demand for royal memorabilia. The relatively new phenomenon of photography could produce carte-de-visites of the Prince – some 70,000 were sold within a week of his death. The proliferation of mourning objects resulted in a veritable cult of commemoration; to some contemporaries it seemed that there was no escape from the incessant mourning sweeping the nation – Charles Dickens tiredly complained to a friend:
‘If you should meet with an inaccessible cave anywhere in that neighbourhood, to which a hermit could retire from the memory of Prince Albert and testimonials to the same, pray let me know of it. We have nothing solitary and deep enough in this part of England.’ 2.
The major reason for so many recurrent manifestations of mourning is due to Queen Victoria, for it was appropriate and respectful for her loyal subjects to support their grieving monarch by displaying public evidence of their grief and sympathy. The Queen herself contributed to this output by the commissioning of many works, both public and private. Perhaps the most intimate and emotional response on Victoria’s part was to carefully arrange Albert’s outfit for the day upon his bed every morning, a ritual act she performed until her own death.
Queen Victoria did not only preserve her husband’s memory within her personal space and time. The apparent desire to continue on as if Albert was still alive was also demonstrated in the material culture of court and court politics during the nineteenth century. In February 1862, Victoria established the Royal Order of Victoria and Albert: a Royal Family Order awarded to female members of the Royal Family and female courtiers. Both the name of the order and the material badge presented to the recipients preserved Albert’s memory and suggested his continued existence in the Royal Court (see fig. 3, below).
Using the cameo of Victoria and Albert which had been employed upon the 1851 Great Exhibition medals, this badge – designed by Tommoso Saulini and made by the jewellers R & S Garrard – amalgamated the images of Victoria and Albert and, despite the recent end to Albert’s physical life, metaphorically and materially fused their identities in life and death. This determination on Victoria’s part to never be separated from her dear Albert resulted in the routine twinning of their names and images together; the repetition of this pairing reinforcing the power of their combined image.
Perhaps the best known example of Albert’s material commemoration is the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens (see fig. 4, right). Commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1861 the memorial was designed for public consumption, to act as a focal point for the nation’s grief; designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, this monument is a bombastic material profusion of all things Gothic Revival. However, it was only finally opened in July 1872 (costing £120,000 – the equivalent of ten million pounds in 2010). Surrounding the gold statue of Albert and the gothic canopy under which he is sheltered are positioned a number of allegorical sculptural groups. These include ‘Asia’, ‘Africa’, ‘America’, ‘Europe’, ‘Manufacturers’ and ‘Engineering’. Consequently, the memorial captured Albert’s importance in both the broad growth and expansion of the British Empire and more specifically in the development of its cultural and technological reputation. The exact geographical position of the monument also contributed to these implications and made them even more overt. Located in Kensington Gardens, running along Kensington Road, the memorial looms over London’s cultural quarter of South Kensington with grace and authority. Directly opposite the Royal Albert Hall – opened in 1871 – the memorial is therefore just one element in a much larger geography of commemoration. Such is Albert’s connection to this area, it has been nicknamed ‘Albertopolis’.
In combination with these overt material commemorations to Prince Albert located in South Kensington, the area more generally can be read as an act of commemoration to the Prince and his contributions to Britain’s cultural development. In response to the 1851 Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park and its contribution to better British design, South Kensington was explicitly developed as a location for cultural education; it was intended to encourage better quality design in Britain and its Empire. Albert had played a crucial role in promoting this cause and the many museums, academic associations & educational institutions located in this area to this day can to some extent be read as material commemoration.
The most obvious expression of the cultural embodiment of Albert’s legacy is in the Victoria & Albert Museum (rebranded in 1909 after initially being established as the South Kensington Museum). The stone figure of Albert stands over the main entrance to the museum (see fig. 5), holding the catalogue of the 1851 Great Exhibition. This book is a repeated symbol in statuary of Albert, used as a reminder of the nation’s debt owed to the Prince as a cultural arbiter. Also, the ‘Prince Consort Gallery’ was constructed and decorated by Godfrey Sykes, who had also been employed by Henry Cole to work upon the internal decorative scheme of the 1862 International Exhibition. The decoration of this space included mosaic roundels with portraits of the Prince; though the gallery was converted into a textile store, a roundel survives (see fig. 6, below). The use of Albert’s image, rendered in mosaic and sculpture, ensures that he enjoys a continual material presence throughout the gallery spaces. The museum celebrates Prince Albert through these physical elements of its internal and external decorations.
Despite opening only months after Albert’s death and being demolished long before the construction of the Albert Memorial or the Royal Albert Hall, the 1862 International Exhibition was also explicitly positioned within South Kensington’s geography of Albert commemoration. Locating the Exhibition within this geographical context is very fitting considering the impact that both Albert’s life and death had upon the 1862 International Exhibition.
1862 was meant to have been 1861; that is, a celebration of the huge success that the 1851 Great Exhibition had been, an achievement that its follower could build upon. This symmetry was never realised due to a combination of factors, including Albert’s death. The combination of the American Civil War (begun in the summer of 1861) and the war between France and Austria meant that the exhibition spirit of international fraternity and co-operation was not a priority for many organisers and contributors. Indeed, such a positive mood was lacking within the British committee itself, many of whom were promoting their own agendas for what the exhibition should be. The biggest squabble concerned the exhibition’s building and design. The group lacked the commonality that had glued together the previous committee who organised 1851. A key member missing from the group was Prince Albert, who had been an influential force behind the conception and delivery of 1851, but was not so much involved with 1862. Nevertheless, his death could not be ignored by the exhibition’s organisers, who lost a key supporter of their cultural ambitions and the figurehead for their show at a stroke. His loss meant that Queen Victoria did not attend the exhibition at all, nor did any other royal visitors participate; it is possible that her lack of attendance may have affected visitor numbers, though not significantly. More interestingly, the tone of the exhibition shifted perceptibly. Although still a celebration of 1851 and the progress achieved in the subsequent decade, Albert’s loss was heavily mourned. Albert and his image became the focus of choice for many exhibitors.
Figure 7 (left) demonstrates just one example of the many material commemorations which were made to Prince Albert by those exhibiting at the 1862 International Exhibition. This bust of Prince Albert (exhibited alongside a bust of Queen Victoria – of course) was a copy of a marble version made by Carlo Morochetti (1805-1867), shown at the Royal Academy in 1851. These exhibits were made by Minton specifically for 1862, and memorialized Albert by overtly remaking images of the Royal couple which had been popular ten years previously and had links with the success of the Great Exhibition. They also paid respect to the dead Prince in a more subtle way. The principal purpose of these busts was actually to demonstrate the potential of the material in which they were made. Parian was a type of porcelain that had been developed in the 1840s. Specifically created for the production of statuary, Parian had the external appearance of marble and was less prone to discoloration than unglazed bone china, which had previously been used as the principle marble imitator. Parian objects had been displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition to high acclaim, and these Milton busts were displayed in a section of the 1862 International Exhibition entirely devoted to ‘Parian and Ivory’. As such, Milton were entering a process of promoting and furthering the development of new technology in Britain and were therefore fulfilling some of the progressive cultural aims which Prince Albert had been so influential in promoting.
Prince Albert’s death was keenly felt in 1861 by many more than Queen Victoria and her Royal Court. In an attempt to grieve their loss and memorialize the late Prince, nineteenth-century society produced a staggering number of material commemorations. By doing so, contemporary mourners almost created the impression that Albert was not dead at all; the regularity with which they would have come in contact with his image suggesting a continuation of his presence. Indeed, for the twentieth-first century observer, these material obituaries create a sense of connection with the Prince and most particularly a keen sense of the esteem with which he was held by his contemporaries, and the pain his passing caused. 152 years after his death, these material expressions of grief and commemoration therefore provide an insight into the emotional responses of those in the past and prompt those of us who consider them closely to make our own renewed respects to Queen Victoria’s precious husband.
1. The Times, 16 December 1861
2. Letter from Charles Dickens to John Leech, quoted in Hermione Hobhouse, Prince Albert: His life and work (London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 1983), p.169.
Elisabeth Darby and Nicola Smith, The Cult of the Prince Consort (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983)
Hermione Hobhouse, Prince Albert: His life and work (London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 1983)
© Helen Cresswell and Ruth Mason, 2013