Survey of London: Volume 38, South Kensington Museums Area. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1975.
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CHAPTER VIII - The Memorial to the Exhibition of 1851
This memorial, designed by Joseph Durham, with modifications by Sydney Smirke, has occupied its present site since the early 1890's. Before then it stood further to the south, where the carriageway of Prince Consort Road now lies, surmounting a water-cascade in the garden of the Royal Horticultural Society. It was unveiled in June 1863, when The Art Journal, whose editor was a member of the building committee, remarked that 'the history of this Memorial of the Great Exhibition and its illustrious Founder need not be written—and never will be!' (fn. 3) The records of the committee in question have not come to light. In their absence no full account of the memorial's history of dissension can in fact be given. (For this chapter see the plans between pages 54–5, and Plates 39, 52b, 55c, 56a, 72b.)
In 1853 the admirers of Marochetti's statue of Richard Coeur de Lion, which had been an exhibit in 1851, proposed to place it as a memorial on the exhibition site in Hyde Park. The peculiar unsuitability of that monarch's image to celebrate peace and prosperity among nations seems to have provoked a counter-move led by the Lord Mayor, Thomas Challis. (fn. 4) He proposed to raise a subscription for a memorial which would also be 'a testimonial of admiration and esteem' to Prince Albert, whose statue was to be its chief feature. This was a slightly more popular idea, not least with English artists and critics who welcomed the sculptural opportunity and disliked Marochetti. In June Challis wrote to Lord Granville, as vice-chairman of the Great Exhibition, setting out the reasons for commemorating that 'noble work' which had 'awakened a spirit of enterprise among the productive masses which, if properly directed, will prepare them for a peaceful rivalry with other Nations: And not only so, but diffuse among them the means of pure and rational enjoyment, bind their affection to the Throne of Her most gracious Majesty, deepen their respect for law and raise them in the scale of social excellence and worth'. (fn. 5) A meeting at the Mansion House in November, when the total of promised subscriptions had reached £5,000, elected a large committee, including the Dukes of Norfolk and Devonshire, to erect a memorial. Sir Charles Eastlake, Sir Joseph Paxton and (Sir) William Tite were members, together with S. Carter Hall, the editor of The Art Journal, which henceforward was a champion of the memorial and in particular of its execution in sculptural terms. (fn. 6) (At least eight sculptors were numbered among the subscribers, with contributions ranging from one to ten pounds. Joseph Durham gave three guineas.)
The promoters of the scheme were, however, liable to accusations of sycophancy and self-aggrandisement: The Times was hostile; and the Prince himself, who had not been consulted, was embarrassed by the proposal. He told Lord Granville of his unwillingness to have a statue erected to him during his lifetime, in words that showed little confidence in the sculptors of the day (see the quotation on page 148). He would have preferred the money to be used to mark the 1851 site and the surplus put towards erecting museums of science and art. (fn. 7) In December he was hoping that the project was only a 'nine days wonder'. (fn. 8) The spasm of acute unpopularity that he was experiencing no doubt made him cautious but in the following May Challis approached him about the employment of the memorial funds, which amounted (partly in promises) to £6,868 from 774 subscribers. (fn. 9) The Prince wanted a memorial to which he could himself subscribe. He asked for the money to be used for the 'promoting of general education in the Arts and Sciences, as applied to productive industry', and particularly suggested the foundation of travelling scholarships. (fn. 10) Challis promised rather doubtingly to urge the scheme on the subscribers. (fn. 11) But it made little appeal to them (or, naturally, to the periodicals of art and architecture). Some promised contributions were withdrawn (fn. 12) and nothing was done for two years.
In 1856 Challis summoned a meeting of subscribers, who decided to persevere with the erection of a monument, and appointed a small executive committee under his chairmanship. The other members were F. Bennoch, T. B. Brandreth Gibbs, Peter Graham, S. Carter Hall and two honorary secretaries, the Rev. Mr. Booth and George Godwin. The latter was editor of The Builder which added its voice to The Art Journal's in support of the argument that the memorial should be a work of monumental art. (fn. 13) The Prince carefully refrained from co-operation. (fn. 14) In July 1857 the committee invited architects and sculptors of all nations to submit designs for a memorial to cost not more than £6,000. (fn. 15) The hope was expressed that the site would be in Hyde Park. The committee declared the intention, but did not absolutely bind itself, to employ the successful competitor: if not, he would receive 100 guineas. Five adjudicators were to aid the committee—Lord Monteagle, Viscount Goderich, M.P. (later Earl of Ripon), Daniel Maclise, R.A., (Sir) William Tite, M.P., and Professor Richard Westmacott. (fn. 16)
By the closing date in February 1858 twenty-two models and some twenty-seven sets of drawings had been received, and were exhibited in the South Kensington Museum. The entries did not bear the competitors' names, although apparently almost all these were known to informed contemporaries. (fn. 17) Only a few competitors, however, were subsequently named, (fn. 18) and most are therefore not now identifiable.
The Building News, as a journalistic 'outsider', thought that the comparatively small number of the entries showed that most artists lacked confidence in the committee. (fn. 19) All agreed that some of the entries were absurd. Among the drawings were designs for a glass obelisk, and for a glass, globe-shaped congress-hall in the Serpentine. (fn. 20) Those who submitted drawings only and not models were at a confessed disadvantage, (fn. 21) and the 'short list' of six included only one who did so, M. Bourgerel of Nantes. Models were submitted by the other five—John Bell, Joseph Durham, W. Calder Marshall, E. G. Papworth, and an unnamed competitor. (fn. 22)
The Queen and Prince Albert viewed the entries in February. (fn. 23) In the following weeks the two 'inspired' organs, The Art Journal and The Builder, published brief comments on the competition. (fn. 24) Both praised Durham's entry most (so did The Athenaeum), and on 15 March the augmented committee duly chose it by ten votes to two (Plate 39a). (fn. 25) The decision was quite well received by the press. Even The Building News thought that Durham's 'feeble commonplace', although inadequate, was 'harmless enough'. (fn. 26)
Today greater interest probably attaches to one of the unsuccessful entries. Alfred Stevens submitted a model which is now preserved, together with preliminary studies, in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Plate 39b). (fn. 27) There is no direct evidence which of the entries, as listed in the press, this was, but it was probably that of which The Builder said: 'the modelling is full of spirit and skill, though roughly executed'. (fn. 28) It is not known why it failed to reach the 'short list'. One comment of Stevens's own was recalled by G. C. Eaton: 'I remember that Stevens was rather fond of saying in connexion with that memorial that it was to stand among trees and therefore should be "as unlike trees as possible".' (fn. 29)
Durham's successful design differed in many respects from what was executed although the general composition remained unaltered. (fn. 30) The plain central pedestal, chamfered and tapering, was of square plan, and was surmounted by a statue of Britannia. The figures at the corners, of the four quarters of the globe, were to be of Sicilian marble, not bronze, and were much larger in relation to the pedestal (and also slightly larger absolutely) than in execution. The Builder thought the composition 'beautifully proportioned' (fn. 20) and The Art Journal was pleased that Durham showed America 'as a young and vigorous Britannia, instead of as an Indian chief'. (fn. 16)
The execution of Durham's design should then have gone forward but this did not happen. The circumstances are not wholly clear, although one factor was the replacement of the Liberal, Sir Benjamin Hall, as First Commissioner of Works, by the Conservative, Lord John Manners, in February 1858. Lord John is said to have refused to allow Durham's design to be erected in the park, but to have been willing to consider another design. Among the committee there was, following the refusal, 'an impression prevailing that an obeliscal design would be more favourably received'. (fn. 31) This impression was evidently derived from the Prince's known tastes as much as Lord John's. Immediately after the competition result was announced one of the entrants, the likeable and unscrupulous John Bell, tried to engage the Prince's influence on behalf of his obeliscal composition, and although the Prince's secretary, Charles Grey, replied that the Prince could not interfere he admitted that 'your idea of what it should consist of corresponds entirely with that of H.R.H.' (fn. 32) Bell, who was evidently abetted in this by his friend Henry Cole, publicized his obelisk, (fn. 33) and the committee were driven to invite him and Durham to offer them obeliscal designs. They preferred Durham's. Then Lord John's successor, Henry Fitzroy, refused (in the summer or autumn of 1859) to allow any monument at all to be erected in the park. (fn. 34) By November 1859 thoughts had turned to an alternative site. Under the Prince's inspiration the centre of the estate of the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners on the other side of Kensington Road was about to be made into a show-garden for the (Royal) Horticultural Society, rich in architectural and sculptural features. It offered a setting in some ways highly suitable for the memorial, although a monument to an exhibition becomes still more otiose when it does not even mark the site. The committee wanted to adhere to Durham's original design, and early in 1860 they and the (Royal) Horticultural Society agreed to place it, as the property of the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners, in the garden, where the Society would contribute £800 to make the base more ornamental. (fn. 35)
The Prince regretted the committee's resistance to an obelisk. (fn. 36) This fact was thereafter promulgated by Bell, who was to pester the Albert Memorial committee persistently on the subject.
The development of the design in 1859–61 is very imperfectly recorded. It is clear, however, that with his own statue no longer included the Prince took a close interest in the design; and he now subscribed £250 to its execution. (fn. 37) In December 1859 he instructed the secretary of the 1851 Commissioners that questions relating to the memorial should be referred to him directly, for discussion with Durham, Godwin, and representatives of the Commissioners and the Horticultural Society. (fn. 38) This would have by-passed the Science and Art Department triumvirate (Cole, Fowke and Redgrave) that had been constituted to manage the garden layout, and although the next two years saw, with the increasing stature of the Department's artist, Godfrey Sykes, a continuance of its influence, the Prince's individual contribution was appreciable.
According to Andrew Murray, the Horticultural Society's secretary, the Prince designed the clasp on the mantle of the figure of America. (fn. 39) More importantly, in the spring of 1860 the Prince suggested how the pedestal should be elaborated, evidently by the addition of the coupled columns at the corners. (fn. 40) A more ornate pedestal was designed by Sykes, and also the architectural substructure (with keystone modelled by Reuben Townroe) which formed the cascade at the head of an ornamental water: unlike Sykes's pedestal, this was retained in execution. (fn. 41) Cole urged that models should be made, and the Prince carefully scrutinized them at the Museum, where his examination of a large 'mock-up' (in the south-east part of the present quadrangle), in the early summer of 1861, is shown on Plate 39d. (fn. 42) By then a further change had been effected. In April Cole had made a scornful attack on Durham's design in a letter to Grey and asked for the non-sculptural parts to be taken from him and given to Sykes and the Horticultural Society's consultant architect, Sydney Smirke. The Prince, apprehensive of ill-feeling, refused. (fn. 43) But a day or two later he came to the Museum and asked Smirke, according to Cole, to 'alter ye Top'. (Cole noted that he 'wanted everything done at once as usual'.) (fn. 44) According to Murray it was Smirke who substituted the present rather handsome cylindrical pedestal for the elaborated square pier, (fn. 45) and thus, as Cole says, made the model 'satisfactory to all parties'. (fn. 46) Smirke's participation in the architectural design was acknowledged at the opening. (fn. 47)
The foundations of the memorial were begun in July 1861. (fn. 48) In that same summer the Queen's statue was substituted for Britannia. The Art Journal in October called Durham's figure 'a noble work'. The intention to execute the statuary in marble had been abandoned, probably at an early date, and the figure was to be cast in bronze. In the Queen's left hand an orb of glass bore a dove of aluminium. (fn. 49)
But in December the Prince died. Within a few days, in a letter to the Horticultural Society, the Prince of Wales declared the Queen's wish that Prince Albert's statue should replace her own, and his own wish to make a gift of his father's statue to the Society. (fn. 50) (fn. 1) Durham was retained for the task but was required to consult with a committee of six—three sculptors, Marochetti, Foley and Westmacott, and Smirke, Godwin and Grey. (fn. 52) By October the work was far enough advanced for The Art Journal to praise Durham's likeness of the Prince. (Andrew Murray says that the attitude of the Prince's right arm, habitual to him, was determined by the Queen. (fn. 53) ) The Art Journal also admired Durham's relentless detailing—'there is no evading that which would be difficult in modelling and composition, and, of course, expensive in carving—the lines are decided where required, and for the effect there is no want of darks and half-lights...' (fn. 54)
The memorial was unveiled, with great ceremony, on 10 June 1863. Journals recorded that the materials of the pedestal were red Aberdeen and grey Cornish (Cheesewring) granite, and that the statues were of electro-typed bronze by Messrs Elkington of Birmingham. (fn. 55) This process was one in which the Prince Consort had had great faith, according to Gilbert Scott, who thought it looked 'exceedingly well'. (fn. 56)
In accordance with Marochetti's advice (fn. 57) the Prince was represented in the robes of the Bath (freely interpreted). Durham's acquaintance, Sir William Hardman, thought the 'tights and boots in the Robin Hood style . . . the only objectionable part of the figure.' (fn. 58)
The Builder announced remarkably that in this statue 'the idea embodied is Britannia (typified by the Prince)'. (fn. 59) The Building News said the Great Exhibition did not need a memorial; 'but the present is an age of testimonials and commemorations'. (fn. 60) In The Art Journal's report gratification was, naturally, expressed, but in a backward look the writer recalled that 'the "authorities at South Kensington"' had tried to persuade the Prince that Durham was incompetent and that 'a gentleman high in their favour and confidence was the right person to do this work'. The Prince had, however, come to realize that the committee had been right to stand by their choice of Durham 'when to do so was not agreeable, nor indeed safe from obloquy'. (fn. 61) It is not clear whether this refers to Cole's advocacy of Smirke, Sykes or Bell, or to some other episode. The writer proceeded to make the negative prophecy quoted at the beginning of this account. Conceivably the committee thought it best to suppress any record of disagreement with the deceased Prince.
According to The Building News the total cost was about £7,500. (fn. 60)
The memorial did not give the Queen a high opinion of Durham's abilities. (fn. 62) He never advanced from Associateship to become a Royal Academician, and at his death in 1877 The Builder noted that he had for some time lacked commissions. (fn. 63) (fn. 2)
When the Royal Horticultural Society's garden was abolished to make way, at its northern end, for Prince Consort Road, the memorial was moved, c. 1891–3, to its present position. (fn. 65) In 1898–9 the 1851 Commissioners had the present terrace constructed around it over vaults, by Higgs and Hill (with a pavement laid by Italian workmen), at a cost of £12,000 (Plates 39c, 52b; plans b, c, d between pages 54–5). (fn. 66) The memorial is still owned by the Commissioners.