11 October 2016

How much influence did Prince Albert have on British culture?

Oh how tastes change! Once upon a time Prince Albert (1819 – 1861) was a royal consort with a high level of learning in the realms of design and architecture. He single handedly raised the level of culture and “governed England for 21 years with a wisdom and energy such as none of our kings has ever shown" (Disraeli, 1861).

Victorian Britain had been a land of nasty capitalism and self-reliance. Government regulation was minimal, and welfare was left to the Church and voluntary cooperatives. With little tax burden and low labour costs, industrialisation and entrepreneurship gave Britain a thriving middle class but an exploited working class. And the state helped promote and safeguard trade through rather brutal foreign policies.

Then Lytton Strachey wrote Eminent Victorians (1918), changing heroes and saints into flawed and hypocritical citizens. The Labour Party started to represent working families everywhere, women wanted the vote and former British colonies became independent nations with their own parliaments. Queen Victoria and her German consort Albert were no longer revered as the sole source of wisdom and morality in Britain and her Empire.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

So I was very interested to read contemporary responses to the Albert, His Life and Work Exhibition, held at the Royal College of Art in London in 1983-4.

John McEwen said the Royal College of Art stood next to the Albert Hall and opposite the Albert Memorial, so the venue was appropriate enough. But considering the whole enterprise was meant to enhance Prince Albert's already considerable reputation, it had to be deemed a bit of a flop. Vict­oria came out of it more beguilingly than ever, but Albert appeared a loser all the way. Of course the Prince was a first rate chairman, moderate, unprejudiced, quick to see the better point and even to elaborate on it.

Prince Albert championed the Great Exhibition but it was actually the secretary of the Society of Arts, Francis Wishaw, who took credit for the idea; and despite Prince Albert's equal regard for the arts and sciences, the arts were not represented in the Crystal Palace. As for personal patronage of contemporary art, his taste was orthodox: in 1841 Turner made a point of exhibiting a number of views of Coburg at the Summer Exhibition; Prince Albert did not even respond.

We know it was not easy - Albert was the first of his kind to make a job of the consort role. But in the end how effective was the prince? As a social outsider and an amateur he worked far harder than any insider or old pro would have found necessary. His addiction to work and his inability to delegate reduced his physical and mental resistance to risky levels, even months before the appearance of the typhoid fever which officially killed him. But what really weakened Albert’s will to live was his adult son, Edward Prince of Wales, who spent 3 nights with an actress!! Albert despaired of Edward and the future the son represented for the crown.

Nicholas Jenkins' good design for the installation at the Royal College included a replica of Albert's humble study at Windsor Castle, lit to simulate the golden hour before breakfast when he did most of his written work. And a silver and gold model of the Albert Memorial was successful. But other features designed to accentuate an aspect of his career failed. More pictures, more documentary photo­graphs and less stagy designing would have more properly dignified the subject, for dignified Albert certainly was.

A more positive response came from Erica Brown. A 1980s' exhibition at the Royal College of Art in Kensington on the life and work of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's German-born Prince Consort, suggested that he was perhaps the closest thing that C19th Britain had to a Renaissance man.

When the 20-year-old Albert, who came from the duchy of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, married his cousin in 1840, he found himself in a Britain embarking on the Industrial Revolution and full of new ideas. Albert, who played an active role in government as the Queen's principal adviser, embraced the new ideas and the societies set up to promote them, but he was not merely an idle patron. There was little that did not engage his interest, and once his interest was caught, he brought an enlightened intellect to bear.

By 25 it was said of him: “To an architect he could talk as an architect; to an engineer, as an engineer; to a painter, as a painter; to a sculptor, as a sculptor; and so through all the branches of engineering, archit­ecture, art and science.” Prince Albert introd­uced the latest scientific and mechanical methods to the royal estates. He took a close interest in encouraging the design of modern housing and he advocated educational reforms. He was a knowledgeable collector of early Italian and German paintings.

He was perhaps most at home with architecture and design. He improved the sanitary arrangements at Windsor Castle, and he extended and redecorated parts of Buckingham Palace. His major architectural projects were Osborne (designed as an Italianate villa) and Balmoral (designed as a Scottish schloss), the houses he and the Queen built as private residences.



The small octagonal study in Windsor Castle clearly showed that it was not Albert who imposed heavy stuffiness and pompous piety on Victorianism. Here, in his role as the Queen's private secretary, he interviewed ministers, drafted memorandums and dealt with vast quantities of paperwork. It was here too that much of the planning for his greatest project, The Great Exhibition of 1851, was done. Note that all profits from this project went to provide a complex of museums, scientific institutions, colleges of music and art.

Alas the Prince Consort died in 1861 at 42. Today South Kensington is the home of Albert Hall, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal College of Music and the Royal College of Art - all living legacies of a man much misunderstood during his lifetime and thereafter.

The book Prince Albert: His Life and Work, published to coincide with an 1983/84 Exhibition, was written by Hermione Hobhouse and published by Hamish Hamilton. And read John McEwen's article "Albert, His Life and Work" at the Royal College of Art, in The Spectator, 12th Nov 1983. I have already referenced Erica Brown's article, "Victoria's Consort: Multifaceted Prince", in New York Times, 27th Oct 1983.


Joseph said...

Science, industry and architecture were suitable contributions for a royal consort. But I think playing an important political role as the queen's advisor was potentially problematic.

Ex-pat said...

The South Kensington Estate really was developed on land purchased from the 1851 Great Exhibition's profits. But the Royal Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial were designed after the Prince had died. So did they reflect the Queen's taste?

Hels said...


When Queen Mary came to the British throne from the Netherlands, she only agreed if her husband William was made king in his own right, alongside her. But Victoria was already queen before Albert arrived from Germany. What model of prince-consort was Albert going to follow?

He had to devise his own model. He may well have been a scholarly Renaissance man, but he was a foreigner with an accent and no royal power in Britain. Many people worried that being Victoria's private secretary and her link to government ministers was unacceptable.

Hels said...


The Facilities For The Enlightenment Of The Public were proposed in the mind of Prince Albert, after the success of "his" 1851 Great Exhibition. But Albert died a young man in 1861, before the architects had been appointed and the first bricks laid. So your question about whose taste inspired the 6 facilities was a good one.

I have only seen the architect's plans, especially Francis Fowke's. Did Fowke and the others check step by step with the queen, ensuring that Albert's old architectural ideas and Victoria's newer ideas were matched? I suspect most of the memorialising was actually done in plaques and shrines.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Perhaps since he died young, people (especially non-British) do not mentally give him credit for what he did accomplish. Certainly he is more associated with memorials than with a lasting influence.

Hels said...


His most lasting influence seemed to be having lots of royal babies and making husbands and wives for every royal family in Europe. And in becoming the "sole source of wisdom and morality" for the entire British Empire (with his wife).

Shame about his major contributions eg the palaces, World Fair etc.

peter said...

Albert and Victoria were both competent pianists, and Victoria by all accounts had a fine singing voice. They both befriended the visiting Felix Mendelssohn, inviting him to visit and play music with them whenever he was in London. They attended public performances of his music, including the first London performance of his oratorio Elijah, which he conducted and which he had premiered in Birmingham a few days before. Neither Queen nor Consort was a philistine. Mendelssohn, who was a friend of Irish nationalists and in favour of universal suffrage and even possibly a republican, was enchanted by them, as his letters reveal. Victoria wrote a very moving letter of condolence to Mendelssohn's wife after his early death.

peter said...

Joseph - It was not Mary who insisted that her husband William of Orange be made joint sovereign of England in 1688, but William himself. He was supported by his soldiers, who had surrounded London. Even so, it took the House of Commons a year to agree terms with him.

Hels said...


You made a great comment about Albert and Victoria's love of music, especially Mendelssohn. Albert was a true Renaissance prince, and clearly encouraged the queen in her cultural pursuits.

But I am less certain about William and Mary. If William of Orange was just after another military campaign, I am guessing that Mary would have preferred to stay home in her modest, rather domestic Dutch palaces, gardening. But once the 7 parliamentarians invited her to take her father's throne, she was put in an invidious position - choosing between her father and husband, surviving childlessness and obeying her husband in all things.

Poor woman - I think she would not have returned to London, had William not been guaranteed a crown in his own right.. nor would William have tolerated a more powerful wife.

Student of History said...

Prince Albert was very keen to educate his children, including his clever daughters. One daughter, Princess Alice, became a hands-on patron of women's causes and was very involved in nursing, especially the work of Florence Nightingale. When Hesse became involved in the Austro-Prussian War, Darmstadt filled with injured soldiers; Princess Alice became very involved in the management of field hospitals.

Queen Victoria was horrified. Prince Albert, had he lived, would have been delighted.

Princess Alice of the United Kingdom, Grand Duchess of Hesse and by the Rhine

Hels said...


I wasn't thinking of Prince Albert's educational influence on his daughters, but it makes sense. Some of them became influential women working with important organisations eg Princess Helena stayed in the UK and was one of the founding members of the Red Cross. And she became a very active president of the Royal British Nurses' Association.

I agree... Prince Albert would have been delighted.