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  • The Albert Memorial
  • Kate Flint (bio)
Gilbert Scott , The Albert Memorial (1872)

The Albert Memorial is an extraordinary artifact—a triumph of excess. It stands on the south side of London's Hyde Park, symbolically positioned on the spot where a line drawn through the length of the Crystal Palace site intersected with the central axis of the 1851 Commissioners' estate. It was erected at the point where Prince Albert's greatest material achievement encountered its future, in the form of the nearby South Kensington museums that were to give permanent and educationally important homes to the arts, the sciences, and the natural world. Prince Albert himself, in all his golden glory, is seated unassumingly on a backless stool with a copy of the Great Exhibition catalogue in his hand. He is dwarfed by his surroundings: by the Gothic revival shrine and spire that protect him, by the frieze and mosaics and statuary that decorate these, and by the monumental aspects of the whole design, with steps leading up to the central edifice and each of the four corners of the base adorned with emblematic representations of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. Among these, incidentally, only America is seen in motion, looking to the future rather than commemorating the past.

This crowded, earnest design has been mocked since its inception. A year after the monument opened to the public, in the fall of 1872, the Builder—the most influential contemporary journal of architectural design—sneered at the manner in which Gilbert Scott, the architect, had, as they put it, laid gingerbread over box girders (27 July 1873). Inevitably, this gilt confection quickly discoloured in the grimy London air. In 1914, by which time cleaning and restoration were already necessary, Lionel Earle, secretary to the Board of Works, wrote to the Treasury requesting funds, remarking that he hoped "regilding will be avoided as much as possible. It is so much less ugly dull" (qtd. in Turner, 348). A year or two later, the future philosopher R.G. Collingwood used to walk past it daily on his way to work at the Admiralty Intelligence Division, and it began, by degrees, to obsess him. "Everything about it was visibly misshapen, corrupt, crawling, verminous," he wrote in his An Autobiography. "For a time I could not bear to look at it, and passed with averted eyes; recovering [End Page 45] from this weakness, I forced myself to look, and to face day by day the question: a thing so obviously, so incontrovertibly, so indefensibly bad, why had Scott done it?" (29). Damaged by anti-aircraft fire and by shrapnel, attacked by vandals, and continuing to deteriorate through the cumulative effects of wind and rain and frost, it was, by the time I first looked at it seriously in the early 1970s, in a sorry state. Perhaps "seriously" is a misleading word: in point of fact, a group of school friends and I approached with our veneration fuelled by some illegally enhanced fudge. No monument had ever seemed so magnificently, extravagantly improbable.

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Gilbert Scott, The Albert Memorial (1872). Photograph by Kate Flint.

Why, indeed, did Gilbert Scott do it? Posing this question involves raising a number of issues that, in their turn, point to the memorial's claim to canonical status. It is, as I will describe in a moment, a structure that exemplifies dominant mid-Victorian taste and cultural self-image. Moreover, it makes one [End Page 46] consider the role of public art, the role of memorialization, and the criteria by which such art might be subsequently assessed. Albert himself, after all, is only tenuously the focus of his own memorial: Scott's design, in the long run, serves far more as a commemoration of Victorian self-confidence and of the conceptualization of the achievements of that society, seen as standing at the centre of the world, than it does the qualities and achievements of one particular man.

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John Henry Foley and Thomas Brock, Memorial Statue of Prince Albert, Albert Memorial (1875). Photograph by Kate Flint.

Yet one must start with Albert in order to acknowledge the...


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pp. 45-49
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