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Loving Albert

In Prince & Patron, the Summer Opening Exhibition at Buckingham Palace, a bust of Prince Albert is displayed, labelled simply as ‘William Theed (1804-91) Prince Albert, 1862; marble.’ But it is no ordinary bust, nor is it just one among other memorial busts commissioned by the Queen. The bust had a unique place in the posthumous sculpture made of Prince Albert and was of quite singular importance to Queen Victoria, in emotional terms.

Superfluously, it would just seem to feature within the veritable crowd of statues that were erected across Britain in the wake of Prince Albert’s death, the essential national memorial of which being, of course, the Gothic Albert Memorial, in Hyde Park. This formed part of a great body of sculpture that was made of the Prince, with statues of Albert being erected in a prodigious number, from his birthplace in Coburg to the North of England and throughout the Midlands (A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 262). Movingly, one was unveiled in the grounds at Balmoral, which in time, would face one of Queen Victoria’s, an eternal gaze of the royal pair in bronze. Busts of Prince Albert filled the royal residences, but importantly, these grieving commissions were only a darker version of what had already very much been the royal rule in life, when the love of Victoria and Albert had been memorialised through art. So, why is this one bust so unique?

When I was researching the history of the Blue Room at Windsor Castle where Prince Albert died in 1861, I came to look deeper into the contents of the room and to explore how it appeared after the death of the Prince Consort. Contrary to popular belief, it was not sealed in the fashion of a German ‘Todeszimmer’ [Death Chamber], but was very much a living and sacred space, in which the Queen regularly prayed and viewed as a kind of personal shrine, a castle-version of the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, which did contain the mortal remains of the Prince.

A notice was put on the door to the Blue Room to say that inside, everything was ‘just as the Prince had left it’ (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 287). Importantly, the room changed greatly, in order to alter the room’s secular appearance into one that was fittingly sacred, with the addition of a star-spangled ceiling, for example, designed by Professor Ludwig Grüner, who had, in fact, been commissioned by Prince Albert as artistic adviser, to help design the mausoleum of his mother-in-law, the Duchess of Kent and was himself, chosen as the architect of the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore. The bust of Prince Albert by Theed, was, of course, added later.

We have only several photographs and a few watercolours by the artist William Corden the Younger to help us reconstruct the Blue Room, which was dismantled after the death of Queen Victoria when it was stripped by Edward VII, and it is now the Writing Room of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. One notable feature however of the photographs of the Blue Room made after Prince Albert’s death is a bust of the Prince, which was placed between the two beds. Other artworks were made, but are more aesthetic and were not made to help record the room’s appearance. The bust was placed on a ‘high plinth’ (Royal Collection, RCIN 34098) between the beds in March 1862, beneath a portrait of Prince Albert, decorated with evergreens (Elizabeth Jane Timms, The Blue Room at Windsor Castle, in The European Royal History Journal, Issue XCVI, 8; Hibbert, 286).

A posthumous bust by Theed was made for Osborne House on a pedestal designed by either Princess Louise or Princess Alice, featuring cherubs. Queen Victoria commissioned two busts from Theed, however, in 1862. It was mostly the Theed bust (1862; marble) which featured in the group photographs taken of the Royal Family after Albert’s death, such as the group picture made shortly after the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1863 (Charlotte Zeepvat, Queen Victoria’s Family, 26). The bust of Prince Albert marks his absence by attempting to replicate his presence; there were echoes of this in the wedding service of the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark, when a Chorale which the Prince had composed, for example, was played – which was visibly affecting for Queen Victoria. Again, this was the kind of dual punishing and a comforting feature that the Queen would have insisted on and then characteristically, have remarked on as personally distressing.

I concluded when writing in 2013, that the Theed bust was that which most likely featured in the Blue Room and in the family photographs – this was also how it was listed in the illustration credits in the biography of Queen Victoria by Christopher Hibbert (2000); the listing in the Royal Collection for this object now also confirms this. Queen Victoria was photographed gazing at a bust of the Prince, with her second daughter, Princess Alice (whose wedding had been more like ‘a funeral’ than a wedding, in the Queen’s words) but that bust is not the same one as that by Theed, which simply sculpts the Prince’s bare neck and shoulders.

There is a poignancy in gazing at an object now entirely removed from its original context, placed as a bust within a spectacular exhibition. This bust once stared out in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle, where Prince Albert died and would have been gazed at regularly by a grieving Queen Victoria and her family, whenever they entered this room which she had purposely made into a shrine. Taken out of the room which was such a poignant, personal space, it can be admired simply for the wonderful artwork that it is.

But there is a particular reason why this bust would have meant so much to Queen Victoria; she was directly involved in a most personal way in its commissioning and its production. It was based on the Prince’s death mask, which Theed had taken at Windsor. The Prince was photographed after death; the image was shown in a documentary, Victoria & Albert, ‘for the first time’, back in 1996. The Queen commissioned the bust from Theed as early as two weeks after the death of the Prince, which places the commission at around 28 December 1861; it was completed at the end of January 1862. After it was placed in the Blue Room, it remained there until the Queen herself died, in 1901. The gilded words above the bust’s mount say it all quite simply: ‘ALBERT’.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

Prince & Patron is showing for the Buckingham Palace Summer Opening 2018 and closes on 30 September 2018.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.