All the way back in December 2013, the editors of Visit1862 mused on the possibilities of considering the 1862 International Exhibition as an ‘object obituary’ to Prince Albert, the late husband of Queen Victoria: RIP Prince Albert.
Almost two whole years later, this post is finally going to consider the more overt physical obituary that was erected in Albert’s memory: The Albert Memorial.
Prince Albert died on the 14th December 1861, only months before the 1862 International Exhibition opened. At the 1851 Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park, Albert had been an important supporter and the Royal family’s endorsement of the exhibition had played a significant role in its success. By contrast, both Albert and his grieving wife were notably absent from the 1862 exhibition and some historians have argued that their absence contributed to the relative ‘failure’ of the event. Therefore, although not physically present at the time of the 1862 International Exhibition, the memorial is part of the exhibition’s legacy and is one of the most prominent expressions of contemporary South Kensington’s Victorian heritage.
The memorial was a public initiative intended to permanently mark Albert’s contributions to British culture and politics, while also demonstrate to the Queen that there was considerable public appreciation for her late husband, even if that hadn’t always been clear during his lifetime. The memorial was therefore paid for through a combination of public subscriptions and government money. Located at the northerly tip of South Kensington, opposite the subsequently constructed Royal Albert Hall, the memorial was conceived in January 1862, but was not ‘completed’ until 1876.
Arguably, however, the memorial was, and still is, in a constant state of becoming and was therefore never entirely ‘complete’ or ‘finished’. Most notably explored by the anthropologist Tim Ingold, material culture studies have recently become very interested in the ‘becoming’ and ever-changing character of material things. Using these ideas, the rest of this post will investigate the becoming nature of the Albert Memorial in three ways. Firstly it was consider how the memorial has been in a constant process of material flux. Secondly it will ask how it has gained a whole range of different meanings and connotations. While finally, it will think about the different ways in which it has been physically related to by visitors during its 150 years.
Although all the parts of the Albert memorial were in position by 1876, the material character of the memorial has regularly changed in the subsequent years, helping to demonstrate how the building was in a state of becoming.
The Albert memorial was made out of a whole range of different materials, including iron, Campenella marble, gold, glass, brick and bronze.
Some of these materials were specifically chosen for their durability, due to fears about the affects of London’s polluted air on the monument’s material stability. Both the sculptural groups on the four corners of the memorial and the sculptural frieze running underneath Albert’s sculpture were made out of Campenella marble, renowned for being a particularly hard stone. However, although this made the marble very difficult for the sculptors to work with, the sculptures still fell prey to polluted decay and discolouring and had to be heavily restored in the 1980s.
Other materials used for their structural properties have also required maintenance and material rehabilitation during the memorial’s life. Almost as soon as the memorial was constructed, water began to seep into the canopy above Prince Albert’s head. The structure, supported by cast iron girders chosen for their structural strength, began to function as a water cistern, the girders began to rust and the canopy expanded. Water began to drip out from the canopy onto the stone sculptures, further contributing to their discolouring and eventually in 1983 a large piece of lead cornice from the canopy was found on the memorial’s steps as the material decay began to have a fundamental influence on its structural stability.
However, it is not only the material qualities of the memorial’s components that have resulted in its material changes. The memorial has also been heavily affected by the events that have happened around it. During the Second World War the cross on top of the memorial was hit by enemy fire and during the First World War, the sculpture of Albert himself was stripped of its gold leafing, apparently in order to prevent it glinting in the light of German planes and give away London’s location.
What is most interesting about these material alterations, is not necessarily what they demonstrate about the material becoming of the memorial, but how ideas and opinions about the memorial have changed over time.
One of many memorials erected in Albert’s memory across the country, seven architects were asked to submit designs for London’s Albert memorial. From these seven, only one design utilised the contemporarily fashionable Gothic revival style, but it was this one entry, design by Gilbert Scott, that was chosen by the judging committee. Scott was well known for his Gothic style and was already working with Queen Victoria on the design for a memorial chapel for Prince Albert at Windsor Castle in the same style. However, despite mid-century enthusiasm for the Gothic revival, the style quickly fell out of favour and the Albert memorial became a painfully prominent reminder of high Victorian taste.
Consequently, despite early enthusiasm for the memorial, the structure was subsequently viewed with distain and distaste throughout the majority of the twentieth century. No attempts were made to repair the broken cross on the top of the memorial until well into the 1950s (and even then the replacement cross was installed at the wrong orientation). While the First World War probably gave the government a ‘golden’ opportunity to strip Albert of his gaudy sheen that had long gone out of fashion.
So disdainful were perceptions of the Albert memorial, that little or no material maintenance was carried out on the structure well into the 1980s, giving the impression that everyone just wished that it would dissolve and no longer be a blemish on London’s landscape! However, in 1983 something miraculous happened. The piece of lead cornice found on the memorial’s steps sparked a revival in the memorial’s popularity and a campaign run by English Heritage, The Victorian Society and the Evening Standard to ‘Save Albert’. Resulting in a £14 million restoration project that has restored Albert and his surrounding entourage to its former glory, the memorial has regained its position within the public imagination and is once again a ‘must-see’ on the tourist map.
The Albert memorial’s re-appropriation within the ‘tourist canon’ leads us nicely to our final point about the structure’s ‘becoming character’: the changing physical relationships visitors have had with the memorial over time.
When the memorial was first opened, visitors could pay a small fee for a guided tour around the memorial, explaining its sculptural groups and their allegorical meanings. Saturated with imperialism and cultural arrogance, the memorial was intended to be an educational tool about Britain’s superiority as well as a token of respect to Prince Albert.
However, as the memorial declined in popularity, its steps were more likely to be filled with picnickers who were able to proceed beyond the railings surrounding the memorial and get close and personal with the Prince himself. Since the memorial’s refurbishment the gold gilt gates that surround the memorial have been largely closed to public, access beyond them restricted to guided tours only.Creating a sense of owe and wonder about the golden sculpture of Albert and a sense of privilege when let in behind these gates, this present arrangement not only helps to preserve the material qualities of the memorial but also results in a particular physical interaction between the memorial and its visitors, contributing to how they think and feel about it.
The Albert Memorial is therefore a material thing that is in a constant state of becoming. It’s material qualities have changed and evolved (for better and worse) over time. It has had a range of different meanings in different cultural contexts and has been related to by decades of visitors in many different ways. Not always a popular member of London’s architectural family, it is definitely worth a visit regardless of personal taste or political opinion.
Brooks, Chris, The Albert Memorial (English Heritage, 1995)
Ingold, Tim, ‘Towards an Ecology of Materials’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 41 (2012), pp.427-42
© Ruth Slatter, 2015