Wednesday 11 June 2014
On a beautiful, sunny day, Linda and I met with a group of Friends of the British Library for a tour of the Albert Memorial, whose official name I have used as the heading for this post, so that you know I am not talking about one of the other 25 Albert Memorials in Britain. This is THE one, opposite the Royal Albert Hall.
Our excellent Blue Badge guide, Richard Skinner, met us promptly at 2.00, despite the slightly slow bus journeys which many of us had experienced, because of the black cab demonstration. He was so interesting that I shall have to work hard to keep this post from including every fact he told us. Fortunately there is lots of detail here.
Before we went inside the railings, which were modelled on those around the tomb of Queen Eleanor in Westminster Abbey, we had a brief history of the monument. Our guide realised that we were the type of group that did not need to be told who Albert was and so on, which was a relief. It is remarkable that the original build came in under budget (£137,000 not £150,000 as planned) partly because the builders agreed to work at cost. But it is even more remarkable that the stunning refurbishment of the 1990s also came in under budget, though with inflation the amounts were now in millions.
The site was selected to pinpoint Albert's greatest achievement, the Great Exhibition of 1851, and is at the point where a line drawn through the Crystal Palace meets a line drawn through Albertopolis, the fabulous collection of museums, colleges and other institutions, built with the profits from 1851.
The architect was Giles Gilbert Scott, so it is as well that the bereaved Queen was keen on neo-Gothic. Scott looked for inspiration to the Eleanor Crosses, as well as various German Denkmals.
It is so huge and therefore heavy that its structure begins under the roadway; 17 ft deep concrete foundations support 868 brick arches (sadly not accessible as funding to restore them was not available). Then comes the large platform, with the steps that are open to the public. Richard told us that the 2.5 miles of granite steps come from the Lake District.
The plinths at the corners of the monument are crowned by the four continents. In telling us about this, our guide reminded us that this was an 1860s project, so Australasia was subsumed into Asia, and had no representation. Asia boasts an Indian Princess, a Sepoy, a Chinese potter and a Persial poet, grouped round a charming elephant.
Africa has a camel and the Americas rather a fine bison. Our photo does not quite show that the USA herself has stars down the front of her robe, but she does. Europe has a bull, with Europa sitting on it, surrounded by a German Philosopher, France with a sword and Italy with Music and painting. Britannia is of course ruling the waves, but her trident has been recently broken off, despite the heavier security which is now in place.
It is easier to see the statue of Albert, and the canopy under which he sits, from outside the railings. Victoria's preferred sculptor, Marochetti, suggested an equestrian statue, which the committee rejected, though Marochetti before he died did complete the head of the statue. The replacement sculptor, Foley, preferred to seat the Prince, in his Garter robes, and with his finger marking his place in the catalogue of the Great Exhibition. The statue was cast by the Southwark company of Prince, so the word 'Prince' appears near the base of the statue.
In fact almost all the work was done by British firms and workmen, the exception being the mosaics in the canopy, which were supervised by an Italian firm.
Above the statue and the canopy, angels and virtues, all in gilt, lead the eye to the Cross and orb, a reminder that Victoria and her Consort were rulers who ruled under God. Inside the canopy one can see Albert's coat of arms, as well as his quartered with Victoria's.
All this can more-or-less be seen from outside the railings. But the reason to take the tour (apart from the fascinating details the Guide will share) is to get up close to the Parnassus Screen. This multitude of artists, poets, musicians, sculptors and architects goes all round the base of the monument, and consists of 196 figures. As Mr Skinner pointed out, that's 195 men and one woman, the Egyptian princess Nitocris, who squeezes into the architects for sponsoring pyramids. When you think that there are two dogs (Hogarth's and Veronese's) you can see what having a female monarch did for equality in the 1860s.
The music side is centred on Homer, but the other three sides start with the Italian Renaissance. Many of the figures have clues, or prompts with them: Phidias is holding a small version of his Athena Nike, Ghiberti has one of his doors for Florence Cathedral, Bernini is standing in front of the Three Graces. Torell, one of the few English artists, has an Eleanor Cross behind him. Fra Angelico is kneeling, because apparently he always knelt to paint, as a mark of his devotion.
Apparently, when she saw the maquettes, Queen Victoria asked George Gilbert Scott where he was and, overriding his modest disclaimer, said he should appear. So there he is, modestly behind Pugin in his strange smock.
Above the Frieze are four more groups, which refer to Prince Albert's modernising interests: agriculture may have a traditional sheaf of corn, but also has a steam machine. Engineering shows a navvy with a spade, but also a blast furnace, and a relief of the Menai Straits Bridge, built using the same box girlder technology as supports the roof of the canopy.
I could go on, but I won't. All this for a German Prince, who was really unpopular when he first married 'our' queen, and who died aged only 42. It shows how his hard work in the many fields represented on his monument and his commitment to his new country changed the nation's view of him.
It was truly fascinating, and when we came to an end and realised we had been listening and looking for over an hour, we were amazed. But don't take my word for it: go and see for yourselves!