Architect: George Gilbert Scott, 1863-72
The national memorial to Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, intended to represent that he had the virtues of a saint.
Most public statues honour heroic individuals, however the Albert Memorial commemorates someone better noted for his ordinariness. Unlike the two previous monarchs, Queen Victoria’s consort was not a womanising dissolute, but a family man who also gave much time to good causes. No doubt he would have been embarrassed by the degree of public grief that followed his untimely death aged 42 in 1861. Souvenir tributes sold in huge numbers, at least 25 public statues were erected, and countless hospitals, halls, museums, bridges and clock towers. However, at Kensington, Scott set out to eclipse them all in terms of “preciousness.”
In keeping with Albert’s reputation for Germanic plain-speaking, the memorial adopted a remarkably literal use of allegory, and its unveiling was accompanied by a large folio detailing the symbolism. The architectural form was based on a medieval altar canopy, surmounted by a spire in the form of an Eleanor Cross. Thirteen of these latter monuments had been erected in 1290 by Edward I to commemorate his deceased queen Eleanor, and parallels were intended between this famously devoted couple and Victoria and Albert. Scott’s “vast shrine” was emblazoned with semi-precious stones and glass mosaics by the Venetian firm Salviati, and supported figures representing the four Christian virtues and four moral virtues. The gilded prince is seated (he’d be 19 feet tall standing) holding the catalogue of the 1851 Great Exhibition, the patronage of which was considered his greatest public achievement, and facing Albertopolis, the complex of educational and cultural institutions originally financed by the profits from the venture. At the structure’s corners are representations of the exhibition’s divisions (Arts, Commerce, Manufacturing and Engineering), and further out, depictions of the four continents that contributed exhibits.
The frieze around the plinth, depicting the greats of painting, poetry, architecture and music, makes interesting viewing today. Several artists are now virtually unknown, while there are equally surprising omissions. Scott chose for himself “an unobtrusive position behind Pugin (theorist of the Gothic Revival and decorator of the Houses of Parliament)… to appear as his disciple.”
Best time to visit: the memorial can always be visited during daylight hours.
Address: South Carriage Drive, Kensington Gardens, London SW7 2AP.