What is the Albert Memorial?
The Albert Memorial is a gaudy 19th-century memorial to Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott
History of the Albert Memorial
Glinting even in the dull London light, the gold-plated visage of Prince Albert sits amidst his greatest cultural triumphs: the Royal Albert Hall, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Science Museum all stand nearby. Meanwhile, on this precise spot, he achieved arguably his most significant cultural contribution of all – The Great Exhibition.
‘There was but one voice’, Queen Victoria wrote of the Exhibition, ‘of astonishment and admiration’.
Within the 80 acres of this masterful, temporary crystal palace, wonders of the world were brought to the British public in the summer of 1851: treasures from India and China; classical European sculpture; a full-scale replica of Egypt’s ancient temple at Abu Simbel; recent, staggering British locomotives. Displaying such an eclectic array of international heritage and innovation, the Great Exhibition sought to articulate and celebrate the potential of a globalised, industrialised future (with the British Empire unchallenged in its dominance). Over 30 countries sent pieces, with elaborate stands of Eastern marvels provided by British Hong Kong and the East India Company.
A quarter of the British population attended. Taking advantage of the great increase of rail lines that since the 1840s connected the UK’s parts at speed for the first time, people flocked from far corners of the country. Intrigued travellers from Europe arrived, both to view global accomplishments and to celebrate their own place in this celebration of the world. Albert Einstein, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, Michael Faraday and Alfred Tennyson were among the attendees.
Albert’s endorsement, and concerted effort in organising the Great Exhibition, gave the endeavour a royal stamp of approval. A great proponent of the arts in London, he helped to spread cultural, historical and artistic energy and curiosity across the country. In the wake of the Great Exhibition, smaller exhibitions and niche museums began cropping up all over Britain. The Exhibition also brought a degree of social progressiveness: the early museums opened in its wake became available for visitors of all backgrounds.
On the memorial itself, homage is paid to the far-flung regions of the world that were represented at the Great Exhibition. Sculptures represent Asia, Europe, America, and Africa. Asia is epitomised by India, Africa by Egypt. America alone is in motion, with the explorer atop a charging bison representing the charge towards the new continent. These national sculptures are accompanied by personifications of the sciences and industries, supported by Prince Albert.
The memorial was constructed in 1872, with Albert in his seat added four years later, a decade after the Prince’s death from typhoid. Albert’s death was much lamented by both his loving Queen, and his adoring public. Memorials to the Prince can be found all over the UK.