The Albert Memorial

The Albert Memorial is one of the great sculptural achievements of the Victorian era, and for sheer scale, opulence and complexity is hard to match. The architect was George Gilbert Scott, and he was much inspired by miniature medieval shrines, and also by the medieval Eleanor Crosses, set up by King Edward I in memory of his dead Queen, Eleanor, wherever the funeral procession went. (Though the original cross in London did not survive, the current Charing Cross is closely based on the earlier design, and suitably shrine-like.) The composition has a large statue of Albert seated in a vast Gothic shrine, and includes a frieze with 169 carved figures, angels and virtues higher up, and separate groups representing the Continents, Industrial Arts and Sciences. The pillars supporting the canopy are of red granite from the Ross of Mull, and from a grey granite from Castle Wellan Quarries, Northern Ireland. These latter pillars, of which there are four, are from single stones, weighing about 17 tons each. Each pillar took eight men about 20 weeks to finish and polish, and the Albert Memorial was noted at the time of its completion as being one of the most costly works in granite of the period. Darley Dale stone was used for the capitals, and the arches are of Portland stone. Pink granite from Correnac, Aberdeen, appears with marble in the pedestal on which the statue of Albert sits.

Incidentally, various other ideas for the national monument to Albert had been put forward. Cleopatra's Needle, on the Embankment, was originally suggested as one idea. Another was to have a monolith - The Times pointed to the expense, noting that a suitably big one would cost half as much as an iron-plated frigate. That idea was sneeringly dismissed as ‘England may show she can do in the 19th Century what the Ancient Egyptians, and even the painted Britons, were able to accomplish in the Sphinx and Stonehenge.’

The Albert Memorial

The picture above, from 1868, seemed an opportune one - the main structure was completed in that year. However the statue of Albert and the fine details are artistic licence, as these were not yet in place. The edifice was opened to the public in 1872, and the statue of Albert was only installed in 1875. The sculptor chosen was Carlo Marochetti, a favorite of Queen Victoria. He produced two designs for statues of Albert, neither considered quite right, and was working on a third when he died. J. H. Foley was selected in his place, and completed a suitable statue, cast in many parts, but himself died before they could be assembled. That task was left to Thomas Brock, his assistant at that time. Older sources indicate that another pupil of Foley's, G. F. Teniswood, also had a hand in the completion of the statue.

The sculptor in overall charge of designing the statuary of the memorial was H. H. Armstead, and he made the Sciences, and together with J. Birnie Philip, made the 169-figure Frieze of Parnassus. J. B. Philip also designed the angels, and the eight Virtues were sculpted by J. F. Redfern. Mosaics were by Salviati of Murano, to designs of John Clayton of Clayton and Bell.

The most impressive groups are the four Continents and the four Industries, entrusted by Armstead to eight eminent sculptors. They are:

Of these, the Africa by Theed is superbly exotic, and arguably the best of them all. The Commerce is also worth close examination.

The Albert Memorial suffered from the general discomfort with all things Victorian during later periods, and due to time, pollution and weather suffered structural damage. For a while at the beginning of the 1990s it was under scaffolding, and there was a lively debate as to what should be done with it. Conservation was one option, considered rather expensive, and for a while Destruction was genuinely put forward as the most reasonable solution. Fortunately, the forces of Barbarism suffered a setback, and the Memorial was conserved. The cost was £10 million, but considering the importance of the work, and the fact that it is equivalent to many separate works of art, this seems eminently reasonable. Three cheers for the good old British taxpayer. Anyway, after being covered with scaffolding for ages, the Albert Memorial is now supposedly as good as when it was put up in the first place, and an absolute must for the visitor to London who cares about Victorian art.

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