The Albert Memorial

 


In 1840 Queen Victoria, the last Hanoverian monarch in Britain, proposed marriage to her cousin Franz August Karl Albert Emanuel of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. This was the Royal's family name until during World War One they decided that the optics were unhelpful and changed it to Windsor. 

Initially, the Great British Public did not see Albert as a Premier League signing, but just another German wannabe, but it transpired that he was a good egg. He championed education, science, the arts and the abolition of slavery worldwide and promoted Britain's claims to pre-eminence in them through Great Exhibition, just down the road in Hyde Park. He was also a good husband, covering both state and parenting duties for Victoria when she was pregnant or off running her Empire. But in 1816 he died, aged only 42. She was distraught and for the remaining 40 years of her life, only wore black. This sounds a bit extreme to me, but it must have simplified the wardrobe choices.

The Great Exhibition in Hyde Park 

Being a (relatively) modest bloke he didn't want a memorial, but being dead meant that he wasn’t in a position to argue when Victoria commissioned this grand, cakey and triumphalist monument from the architect George Gilbert Scott of St Pancras Station fame. So here he is, all 12 tons of him, holding the catalogue for the Exhibition and encased in an outer layer of 23-carat gold leaf, reminiscent of James Bond's squeeze in 'Goldfinger'. 

Jill Masterson / Goldfinger 

The idea was simply to showcase humanities reach and achievements, focusing in particular on the disproportionate achievements of the British Empire. If you are in any doubt, glance across the road at the frieze of figures girdling the roof of the Albert Hall. Notice Britannia sitting in the middle as the world gathers around her. Huzzah for us. But time moves on and now the wonderfully ornate detailing merits a trigger warning. In a politically correct world with an adjacent dock, this Memorial might be toppled into it. Maybe that it is why it is surrounded by a (pretty) metal fence.

Imperialist, capitalist, colonialist, sexist; you name it, it's all there. In the corners of the enclosure are ensembles of representational figures and animals from the corners of the globeThe civilised Europeans come fully clothed with Britannia holding a trident because it rules the waves. The bull is Zeus in disguised. He raped Europa so this is hardly condemnatory symbolism. I would have opted for something fluffier.  

Europe

Europe of course is endowed with a proper history. For the rest, their story began when the Europeans discovered them. Being backward and innocent, few of the Africans, Asians and Native Americans qualify for a full set of 19th c. style 'civilised' clothes. They are displayed with a Camel, Elephant and Bison respectively, none of which are likely to have celebrated the connection. I have read that the African lad with the unlikely hairdo is receiving instruction from the equally unlikely European lady on the camel. It thus manages to be both patronising and matronising in one ensemble. 

Most of the rest of the Southern hemisphere doesn't get a look in, presumably because the rest of the Americas had been abandoned to the equally rapacious Iberians and Australasia was still just a suburb of Europe and where the British sent the naughty people. 

Africa

Asia 

America

Around the bottom, there is a frieze of notables. 167 I am told, nearly all Europeans. All bar Scott himself were dead, presumably to circumvent arguments. There are also two dogs but no women. You would have thought that Victoria might have a view on that.

Homer gets a central spot. Michaelangelo actually appears twice. If you find him' take a look at his nose. When he was a teenager it was broken in a fight with Pietro Torrigiano, who is also here, but a safe distance away. You can't ignore the European contribution here but there are some choices that you might think a bit odd. Schubert doesn't get a mention but Thomas Arne does. He did compose 'Rule Brittania' after all. 

Here is the whole thing, to give you an idea of scale.


And here is a detail. That is Homer, being musical in the centre, with (I think) Shakespeare sitting on the right, 


Some of the people represented never actually existed. Others might as well not have, because I have never heard of them. There is 'William the Englishman' and 'William the Irishman', presumably included because the bar of greatness was set lower for Britons who, at that stage, included the Irish.

The whole list is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frieze_of_Parnassus

Notice there are no thinkers in it, and for that matter no 'nonfiction' writers at all. That did surprise me. Maybe the likes of Adam Smith, David Hume or Descartes for that matter were seen as mere journeymen.  But by the same token, the omission of military and political figures from the relief was a relief! 

Quiz time: I had heard of only about 2/3rds of this lot, having failed miserably on the sculptors in particular. Can you do better?  And who would be on the list if our current politicians got to choose, maybe a 'patriot' like Michael Gove. Actually, that doesn't bear thinking about. 

Immediately above the Frieze are a group of statues representing agriculture. commerce, engineering and manufacturing. The pic below is 'Commerce' and I am sure you will agree that could be a typical scene in the Square Mile today. 

Commerce

The 'Guardians' surrounding Albert himself represent art, science, geography and religion. The only thing I share with Theresa May is an iffy geography degree so it is satisfying to see that included especially because economics doesn't make the cut.  

Higher up still, quite properly, are angels and virtues. They look down at Albert, and he looks down on the great and the not-so-great. Sweet.

The earlier allusion to the Bond films fits well. The Memorial sings of a debatable (and in Bond's case delusional) claim to British pre-eminence. But honestly, I am more dozy than woke and am happy to judge both Albert, his memorial and Bond by the standards of their ages. So I love it and it makes me laugh. At it and at us.


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