The grieving Queen Victoria was so overcome by the memorial to her late husband that his bronze effigy was hidden, like some enormous caged parrot, under a black drape whenever she passed.
More than a century later, his Royal Highness Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha is under wraps again.
But this time, to the dismay of many Londoners, his renowned Gothic canopied memorial in fashionable Kensington is to stay hidden until the 21st Century.
The problem is one of old age--the bronze and marble monument is literally crumbling--exacerbated by an economic recession that led the government to postpone a planned multimillion-dollar restoration last year.
Instead, the masterpiece designed by George Gilbert Scott in 1862 has been mothballed inside a towering, hangar-like scaffolding erected for its restoration.
No date has been set for its reappearance.
Art historians and the Victorian Society--a national group campaigning for the study and protection of Victorian architecture and other arts--are up in arms.
“The memorial is the most significant Victorian monument of its kind in Britain, as important to London, in its way, as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris,” the society said in a newsletter announcing a campaign called “Save Albert 1993.”
“If its restoration is set aside until the next century, not only will the structure deteriorate, but the costs involved . . . could make the work no longer feasible,” it said.
Teresa Sladen, coordinating the society’s campaign, said it was not seeking donations because the sums involved were so massive but was aiming to apply pressure instead. An all-day conference of experts has been scheduled for June.
“The state rooms at Windsor are going to cost $60 million to restore. Architecturally they are far less significant than the Albert Memorial,” Sladen said, referring to royal rooms destroyed in a fire at Windsor Castle last year.
“Obviously there are other reasons for restoring the state rooms, but if you are talking about their architectural significance then they are fairly mediocre.
“The Albert Memorial is a prime Victorian work that clearly had an effect on the development of sculpture and the design of monuments through the rest of the Victorian period.”
Ironically, the monument’s cladding--the largest free-standing scaffolding in Britain--has become something of a tourist attraction in its own right.
The Albert Memorial has detractors as well as friends. Some do not want to save a structure that has been described with varying degrees of irreverence as a monument to widowhood, a phallic symbol and a monstrosity.
In their slow decay, the statues, mosaics and reliefs celebrating 19th Century imperial pride and manufacturing power are a sad mirror of a once-great nation in decline.
“Is it really worth saving?” the Daily Telegraph newspaper asked its largely conservative readers in April.
The paper said that the money needed for complete restoration--around $14 million--was more than the sum spent by English Heritage annually on 375 sites, including Stonehenge.
But such debate has always surrounded the Albert Memorial, with its Gothic spire and its monumental sculptures representing Africa, Asia, Europe and America at the corners. Australia, formerly a penal colony, was not included.
At the very start the public appeal failed to raise enough money to pay for the monument. The Irish, who refused to subscribe, also broke a contract to supply the granite.
And its reception was less than overwhelming in some quarters.
“The Albert Memorial is worth looking at, were it but to show how easy it is to fool away 3 million francs,” wrote a French traveler shortly after an informal unveiling.
“It is beyond question the finest monumental structure in Europe,” asserted American Moncure D. Conway in 1882.
Albert, who died of typhoid contracted at Windsor in 1861 at the age of 42, was not overly keen to be immortalized.
“I can say, with perfect absence of humbug, that I would rather not be made the prominent feature of such a monument,” he declared in 1851 when there was talk of erecting a statue to him after the Great Exhibition of that year in London.
“And if (as is very likely) it becomes an artistic monstrosity, like most of our monuments, it would upset my equanimity to be permanently ridiculed in effigy.”
Nearly 150 years later, his fears seem justified.
“The memorial is a complete sham,” declared critic Stephen Bayley in the Daily Telegraph. “It is not self-supporting Gothic, but an iron frame in disguise. Like the values it represents, that frame is now in very poor repair.”
The article, short and to the point, was headlined: “Let It Crumble.”