Historical Notes: Albert's memorial not for who he was

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AS THE Queen reopens the restored Albert Memorial today we may wonder what the Prince Consort, her great-great-grandfather, would have thought of it.

Expected to endure, the monument suffered unanticipated obsolescence. The Victorian gingerbread metalwork rusted; the gilding was destroyed during the Great War in a botched attempt to dull the glint from intruding Zeppelins; and "friendly fire" in the next war from anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park popped the orb at the top, which was badly replaced in peacetime.

During the brief Derby ministry in the later 1850s, Albert had proposed that an architect he admired, George Gilbert Scott, design the projected new Foreign Office. Scott returned with plans in the neo-Gothic style then dominant, but Palmerston returned to Downing Street and turned Scott's conception down in favour of Regency neoclassicism.

With the Prince's support, Scott took his rejected drawings to the directors of the Midland Railway, friends of Albert's since their collaboration on the Great Exhibition of 1851. The building materialised as St Pancras Railway Station, now considered one of the glories of mid-Victorian architecture. Victoria would choose Scott to design and oversee the memorial to her husband. One assumes that his shade would have approved.

Centrepiece of the structure is John Foley's monumental seated statue of Albert in his Garter robes. In 1853, tales surfaced that Albert's admirers were lobbying for a statue of the Prince in Hyde Park on the former site of the Crystal Palace, which had been dismantled and moved across the Thames to Sydenham. Rumour had it that statues of George III and George IV, and the pillar memorialising the little-lamented Duke of York, like George IV an uncle to both Victoria and Albert, would be melted down for their bronze. Punch published a satirical cartoon.

Embarrassed, the Prince denied aspirations to be a statue in Hyde Park or any other public place, writing to Lord Granville on 3 November 1853 that he could say, "with perfect absence of humbug", that it would disturb his rides in the park "to see my own face staring at me", and, if it was "an artistic monstrosity, like most of our monuments", it would upset him "to be permanently ridiculed and laughed at in effigy".

He had privately downplayed his royal role, preferring to subsume himself in the Queen's service and taking on only those responsibilities which did not interfere with being, in effect, her executive assistant. Albert turned down Wellington's quite serious offer that he become the Duke's successor as commander-in-chief of the Army, yet he entered and won a contested election for Chancellor of Cambridge in order to reform the medieval curriculum and help thrust a reluctant university into the 19th century. So, too, when little more than 30, he took on the Great Exhibition, turning it into the first World's Fair and focusing it upon science and industry so successfully that it turned a profit and provided the impetus - and substantial funding - for the great complex of museums, colleges, institutes and concert halls in South Kensington first derided by sceptics as "Albertopolis".

Under the ornate friezed canopy, the Prince, in gilded bronze, holds one of the volumes of the exhibition catalogue in his right hand, his forefinger tucked between its pages to suggest that he was serious about it. He had, in life, even checked to see that each object displayed was correctly labelled.

Despite his deploring monuments to himself, Albert would have been pleased to be memorialised for what he did rather than who he was.

Stanley Weintraub is the author of 'Albert, Uncrowned King' (John Murray, pounds 15.99)