“ Hyde Park, Kensington Gore, SW7 (Knightsbridge tube). Queen' Victoria's memorial to her husban Prince Albert. Built by George Gilbert Scott. The monument is 175ft tall with a 14ft statue of Prince Albert, by John Foley. Built in 1876 at £120,000 c „
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Why should anyone possibly go out of their way to see the Albert Memorial (let alone sit down and write an opinion on it for dooyoo), you might ask? Well, if you’re anywhere within the vicinity of Kensington Gardens, you probably won’t need to go out of your way. It’s difficult to miss. Situated in the Gardens facing the Royal Albert Hall, and not far from the Victoria & Albert Museum, the edifice consists of a vast Gothic shrine, based loosely on a medieval market cross surmounted by a cathedral spire. It includes a frieze with 169 carved figures, angels and virtues higher up, and separate groups representing the four Continents (Europe, Africa, America and Asia – sorry Rupert Murdoch, yours doesn’t count), Industrial Arts and Sciences. Supporting the canopy are pillars of red granite from the Ross of Mull and of grey granite from quarries in Northern Ireland. The four latter pillars are from single stones each weighing about 17 tons. Each pillar took eight men about 20 weeks to finish and polish. Seated in the middle is a 14-foot high statue of Albert, Prince Consort, holding an open copy of the Great Exhibition of 1851 on his knee. The entire construction is 175 foot high. Queen Victoria commissioned the monument as a kind of shrine to her husband a few years after his death in 1861. It was opened to the public in 1872, though construction was only completed in 1876 with the addition of Albert’s statue. The entire cost was around £120,000, paid for by part of the profits from the Great Exhibition (which was clearly a better money-spinner than the Millennium Doom – I mean Dome). Ironically, the man himself once said that he didn’t care for the idea. In 1853 somebody suggested a statue of him be erected in Hyde Park. 'I can say, with perfect absence of humbug, that I would much rather not be made the prominent feature of such a monument, as it would both disturb my qu
iet rides in Rotten Row to see my own face staring at me, and if (as is very likely) it became an artistic monstrosity, like most of our monuments, it would upset my equanimity to be permanently ridiculed and laughed at in effigy', was his response. Queen Victoria was evidently not listening. So just remember, if Tony Blair ever says that he doesn’t want anyone putting up a monument to him after he’s shuffled off on the grounds that hey guys, it wouldn’t be at all sexy or cool or whatever his army of spin doctors has told him is the buzzword of the moment, make sure Cherie is paying attention. When I was at college in London during the 1970s, the monument was literally open to the public, and you could actually touch it. However, go today and you will find it protected by railings (a little like No. 10 Downing Street, in fact). Over the decades, pollution and the elements took their toll, and by 1990 it was under scaffolding. After a few years during which it looked like a giant parcel, there was some debate as to whether it should be allowed to wither away, be destroyed or restored, and the latter option was chosen. If the ghost of Albert ever voted for its annihilation, he was frustrated. Perhaps he still haunts it to this day. The cost of restoration was about £10 million. Waste of money, you may say. At the risk of straying off-topic and venturing into Speakers’ Corner territory, that is precisely the sum of taxpayers’ money spent by DEFRA in 2001 to construct Ash Moor pit, a 101-acre site in previously unspoilt countryside in North Devon for the disposal of animal carcasses during the foot and mouth epidemic. It was never used, and is now being demolished. Don’t ask me what the final cost will be after it’s filled in again, but it makes the refurbishment in Kensington Gardens look like a bargain. Anyway, under the auspices of English Heritage, the newly-refurbished Memor
ial was unveiled in October 1998. Albert’s statue is now gilded, and on a bright day sunglasses are recommended (for the viewer, not for Albert himself, that is). The Victorians treated it less than reverently, calling it ‘the Albertopolis’. Some may find it an eyesore (in which case, what does that make the Ash Moor pit), but in my view it’s difficult to criticise. It’s very much a product of the times, and I’ve always been fascinated by the Victorian age. Mind you, I think the Angel of the North is a pretty atrocious creation, but I dare say that has its defenders, if only from the sculptor’s own family. On a more serious note, there are several websites devoted to it, though from a historical viewpoint, the most informative is http://www.speel.demon.co.uk/other/albmem.htm Tours take place at 14.00 and 15.00 on Sundays (March-December), lasting about 45 minutes (£3.50 adults, £3.00 senior citizens, children and English Heritage members). I’ve never been on one, so I’m not qualified to say what you would see from these that can’t be gleaned from a view through the ratings. The Memorial doesn’t merit a special journey on its own. But if you’ve come to see some of the other museums or attractions in the vicinity, or if you’re just passing the time in Kensington Gardens (well worth a wander, particularly on a fine morning), it’s worth spending a few minutes to take a casual look at least. Artistic monstrosity, or a true reflection of its age? Both, I think.
The Albert memorial is not the sort of the place I would normally visit of a weekend. But my Ma who’s studying Victorian culture wanted to see it. So off we went to South Kensington which is a veritable Victorian theme park. There’s the V&A museum containing the remains of the Albert-inspired Great Exhibition as well as stuff looted from all over the 19th century British Empire. The Albert Hall and the directly across the road, the centrepiece of all: The Albert Memorial, sometimes irreverently nicknamed the Albertopolis. For my mum’s essay we couldn’t have picked a better place to visit as the Albertopolis is a typical piece of Victoriana. The architecture being part gothic, part classical, part rococo and (a large) part eyesore. For some reason the designer thought it was a good idea to combine a hodge-podge of Greek-style pillars with excessive gilding and a cathedral spire. Ironically since the recent restoration it’s even more difficult to look at. The polishing has given it an excessively bright gold sheen which, on the sunny day we visited, made it impossible to look at without sunglasses. In theme the Albert Memorial is also classically Victorian, being a combination of sentimentality and self-publicity. Despite supposedly being devoted to the dead prince, it’s mainly about extolling the virtues of Britain. The centrepiece is a big statue of Albert surrounded by tableaux symbolising the 4 corners of the British Empire: India, is elephants, North America is buffaloes etc. And at the bottom there’s smaller statues and inscriptions devoted to various notable Victorians. Location-wise, the Albertopolis is situated in a pleasant area of Kensington Gardens, near the entrance. On Sunday this area is popular with horse riders, roller-bladers and dog walkers and you can sit on the steps people watching. As it’s in a public place it’s free to look at, although its now gated off so you
can’t get really close to Albert. (Maybe too many people put traffic cones on his head.) If you’re visiting the area its probably best to combine it with a visit to the other attractions in Kensington to make it a worthwhile visit. As, just by itself, there’s certainly worse places than the Albert memorial to spend a spring day at. But there’s also a lot better to see in London.