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The Head of a Royal Angel: The Albert Memorial

The most important monument built to the memory of Prince Albert in London was the magnificent Gothic Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, designed by George Gilbert Scott, unveiled in 1872.

Officially termed the Prince Consort National Memorial, its location is particularly appropriate, in what has been popularly termed ‘Albertopolis’. It lies within the cluster of the museums in Kensington which remain Prince Albert’s greatest legacy to the nation; the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Royal Albert Hall – built with the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of 1851 – and of course, the Victoria and Albert Museum. Prince Albert is justly celebrated for his remarkable tastes and artistic interests, his seated statue presiding over a group of no less than one hundred and eighty-seven figures on a Parnassus frieze, depicting celebrated painters, poets, sculptors, musicians and architects. Prince Albert is shown holding the catalogue of the Great Exhibition in his hand; which he helped to mastermind and which was held in the near-lying Hyde Park, in the so-called Crystal Palace, as designed by Chatsworth’s Joseph Paxton. One of the heads of the angels on the Albert Memorial is also the inspiration for a touching story, which itself leads back to the Royal Mausoleum of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Frogmore, Windsor.

With the death of Prince in Albert in 1861, the grief of Queen Victoria and her profound observance of mourning for him also meant that she developed an obsessive desire for him to be memorialised. As if her love for the Prince Consort (‘[She is] as much in love with Papa as though she had married him yesterday’, wrote the Queen’s eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia) needed creativity in which to express itself, given that he himself was no more. Like any memorial, these monuments were to stop him being forgotten, so the country would also grieve with her, for the consort it too had lost. This resulted in statues being erected – the Queen sharing her grief with the nation – and also in the private royal residences, such as the couple’s beloved Highland retreat at Balmoral; throughout Britain, countless squares and streets were named after Prince Albert. The statues are in fact, an apt and unintentional illustration of the sad truth. This is because Queen Victoria – although rightly depicted as Queen regnant – was ‘alone’; the many statues that still stand in the cities and towns of Great Britain mostly showed her in the dark hues of bronze, triumphant but in the words of her journal on the day she became Queen in 1837: ‘of COURSE, quite ALONE’ (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 54).

Queen Victoria seems to have had a particular interest in using the imagery of angels in connection with Prince Albert, even allowing for the artistic definitions of the Victorian age. She referred to him as her ‘Angel’ or in one example letter, as ‘My heavenly Angel!’ (Hibbert, 290). The monument which was put up in the Albert Memorial Chapel at St George’s Chapel depicts a recumbent, marble Prince Albert surrounded by bronze angels kneeling at the four corners. George Gilbert Scott, who designed the Albert Memorial, had also worked on the royal commission to convert the so-called ‘Wolsey Chapel’ at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, into the Albert Memorial Chapel.

There are angels carrying crowns and wreaths in eight panels at the base of the dome of the Royal Mausoleum, hovering above the effigies; they are also present around the four corners of the tomb itself – four large bronze angels, which were designed by Baron Carlo Marochetti and made by the French firm Barbedienne (Royal Collection Publications, Frogmore House and Mausoleum, 43). Two near life-size angels stand as guardians outside the Royal Mausoleum, with a sword and trumpet, sculpted by the Brunswick sculptor Georg Howaldt, in 1878 (Ibid, 41). (Queen Victoria referred to Prince Albert as having been her ‘guardian angel’ on one occasion in 1899). Two winged angels hold a wreath of stars over a medallion of Prince Albert in St. Mildred’s Church, Whippingham, where the Queen and Royal Family worshipped, when at nearby Osborne; the memorial was placed in the church in 1864. The Royal Collection contains an engraving from around 1867, by the artist Johann Grunn, showing a marble bust of Prince Albert being draped with wreaths by two girls and an angel.

Prince Albert – a keenly talented jewellery designer – also included angelic symbolism in the personal jewellery that he designed for the Queen; the ‘angel brooch’ of 1841 which shows William Ross’s miniature of their first child, the Princess Royal as a baby, is pave-set with diamond-studded wings; itself inspired by Raphael’s Dresden Sistine Madonna, which was the source of inspiration for many angel subjects in jewellery throughout this period (Charlotte Gere, Victoria & Albert, Love and Art, Queen Victoria’s Personal Jewellery, 9). Princess Helena, the couple’s third daughter, drew an angel on her father, Prince Albert’s 40th birthday card. Their third son, Prince Arthur, drew an angel in flight for the royal couple’s Wedding Anniversary in 1859, strewing their entwined initials ‘VA’ with flowers. Winged cupids had adorned Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding cake in 1840.

A side chapel in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore contains a sculpture of the Queen and Prince Albert together as a group, with Prince Albert in Saxon dress, by the sculptor William Theed, the Queen’s eyes gazing up at the face of the husband she adored. And then, of course, there are the exquisitely hewn tomb effigies, by Marochetti, showing the Queen alongside the beloved husband she had outlived by precisely forty years. These, of course, were private statues – never made to grace any square or park in Britain – but yet they aptly show the expression of royal love and union, through art. As if to make this clear, the statue on the Balmoral Estate which Queen Victoria had erected of Prince Albert, in time faced one of hers which was put up opposite; reinstating the dynamic of the royal pair, their statues would eternally face one another. It was also designed by William Theed and unveiled on 15 October 1867, the Queen standing in front of it, with the royal children – a weird recreation of the (lost) family group. It was almost as if the Queen’s need to put up statues of the Prince was to quench her grief and comfort it with ever more and more ‘Alberts’; whether they were in the grounds of the private residences or in the public squares of Manchester, Liverpool or Wolverhampton, to name but several.

The Albert Memorial is surrounded by figures representing Europe, Asia, Africa and America as well as others personifying Manufacture, Commerce, Agriculture and Engineering. It is reflecting not only the Prince Consort’s extraordinary contributions within these fields but also the breadth of his interests and again implying that even British industry had sustained a huge loss through the Prince’s death and should justly acknowledge its debt to him. Closer to the top of the memorial are gilded statues of the virtues and – the angels.

In a side chapel of the Royal Mausoleum of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Frogmore, is the head of one of these bronze angels, which fell during the air raid of 1-2 October 1940, from the Albert Memorial, less than a month after ‘Black Saturday’, the daylight raid which began the Blitz.  George VI, the great-grandson of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, ordered that the head of the angel from the Albert Memorial be put in the Royal Mausoleum. This is where it remains to this day, meaning that even something meant to memorialise the Prince Consort, has ended up in the place where the Queen and Prince are buried; a piece of his National Memorial.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 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.