The most extravagant, the most recognisable and perhaps the most poignant statue in London for me has to be Queen Victoria’s memorial to her late lamented husband, Prince Albert, opposite the Royal Albert Hall, Kensington, London in Kensington Gardens. It commemorates the life and work of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – a life cut short at just 42 when he died of typhoid fever.
He left behind him a grief-stricken widow who would wear her mournful weeds for the rest of her life. This memorial to her husband took eight years to complete, was designed in the gothic manner by George Gilbert Scott and involved an army of artists and craftsmen in its complex design.
The iconography of the statutory is slightly confusing but from what I can gather, the main large sculptures on the outer edges symbolise the various continents of the world who exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 which to a large degree, was organised by Prince Albert. It took place in a temporary Crystal Palace created just a few metres away in Hyde Park. The groups above the main frieze are symbolic of Agriculture, Manufacture, Commerce and Engineering – the major themes of the Exhibition.
The Parnassus frieze however, which runs around the memorial, depicts those figures that the Victorians considered the greatest figures in Western culture, arranged within the fields of poetry, music, painting, sculpture and architecture. Most of the statues are hewn from Campanella marble but for the figure of Prince Albert (for which 72 tons of cannon barrels were provided by Woolwich Arsenal), gilded bronze was used.
The sculptor of Albert himself – or rather sculptors – was firstly Baron Marochetti (who died), then John Foley (who again died before the statue was cast) and finally Thomas Brock who completed the work. It shows him in his Garter robes, holding a volume of the Great Exhibition catalogue. The actual memorial opened to the general public in 1872 but without the Prince’s statue which was eventually installed three years later. It was then covered up again for another year so it could be gilded before being finally unveiled in March 1876. Scott was knighted for his work on the memorial.
The monument incurred slight damage in both World Wars but it was only when a piece of lead fell off in 1983, that a full restoration was commissioned. The monument, complete with an Albert now covered in 24-carat gold, was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in October 1998. Rumour has it, it is a bit too ornate for her taste ….