Without the scheming Duchess Augusta of Saxe-Coburg, what would South London have been like? History is full of ‘ifs’. If only Harold had dodged that arrow in 1066? If only Anne Boleyn had had a son? If Edward VIII hadn’t abdicated?
But for the Duchess Augusta the young Queen Victoria would never have married her Albert. And if he had not been Prince Consort would there have been a Crystal Palace and the development of the Norwood we know?
Albert was born a prince of Saxe-Coburg, one of the small German kingdoms. The Gothic summer palace with its wonderful marble hall and the Biedermeyer furnishings were just two of the influences on the young prince.
Duchess Augusta arranged for the young cousins, Albert and Victoria, to meet in London during 1836. Three years’ later Albert returned to London and married Victoria at the Chapel of St.James’s Palace the following year.
The commemoratives’ business flourished for the wedding with plates, medals and prints produced in quantity. Many souvenirs have survived, including a piece of the original wedding cake (in the possession of the Earl of Radnor)!
Court life for the young Queen and her Consort was a mixture of official duties and domesticity. A Government Minister was always in attendance, even at Balmoral. Royal balls often had an official or philanthropic purpose, or were to entertain foreign royalty. They were keen theatregoers and not only had a court band but also a royal theatre company at Windsor.
They ‘were in many ways model parents; taking a great interest in their offspring’. As the nursery filled, the cartoonists had a field day. One wrote:
‘There was a Royal lady lived in a shoe,
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.’
Albert quickly became the Queen’s confidant and political adviser. However, he insisted that his household and that of the Queen should be non-political; a trend that has been followed ever since.
The Prince Consort was Field Marshal of the British Army. He took the role seriously and even designed a prototype army hat, looking like a top hat. After the Crimean war, Albert founded a library at Aldershot to improve the education of army officers, many of whom still bought their commissions.
Albert is best remembered for his interests in science, technology, education, architecture and the arts. He was one of the first people in Britain to lay stress on the importance of both the sciences and the arts. As one Robert Rawlinson wrote in 1846, ‘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; to a chemist as a chemist; and so on through all the branches of engineering, architecture, art and science’.
Albert was the first President of the Society for Improving the Condition of Labouring Classes. This was one of the earliest and most influential organisations for building better housing for the working classes. He put these principles into action on his estates and in the 1851 exhibition.
The Prince became President of the Royal Society of Arts in 1843 and he encouraged work towards a great exhibition. Six years’ later the Fine Arts Commission decided to hold such an exhibition. The minutes of the Commission record:
‘It was considered that… particular advantage to British industry might be derived from placing it in fair competition with that of other nations’. At a display in 1983 the atmosphere of 1851 is invoked by a wide selection of items from the exhibition: a series of coloured lithographs of the interior; Prince Albert’s season ticket; silk woven panels from Macclesfield, the Museum of London’s marvellous model of Paxton’s Palace’ and a Parian-ware model of ‘The Great Slave’. (In ‘The Phoenix Suburb’, Alan Warwick notes that an outcry led to similar, life-size statues having to be covered up at Sydenham.).
Albert supported similar events throughout the kingdom. He opened the Dublin Exhibition two years later and also supported the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857.
The profits from the Great Exhibition paid for ‘Albertopolis’ - the museum, university and arts complex of present-day South Kensington. Albert wanted to stimulate education and industrial design; which ‘South Ken’ has achieved ever since.
Albert wanted to encourage scientific training and his efforts led to the foundation of what became Imperial College (in 1907). He personally persuaded Professor Augustus Hofmann to come from Germany to London to help found the College of Chemistry.
Even the Royal Albert Hall was his own idea although the prime movers in its actual construction were Henry Cole and General Grey (Albert’s Secretary).
Patron of Arts
Albert was a competent artist and sculptor himself. He also collected and encouraged contemporary painters, with a view to influencing public taste in England. He commissioned many fine pieces, such as a simple, silver powder flask, as gifts.
He was responsible for building up the library at Windsor and buying Balmoral. Needless to say Albert was a keen farmer and at his death was President-Elect of the Royal Agricultural Society.
Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, was built to his own ideas with the detailed plans being drawn up in Thos. Cubitt’s offices. Buckingham Palace was extended in the same way.
Work by artists of today proves that Albert’s ideals are still alive! Royal College of Art old boy Henry Moore’s splendid King and Queen, Kate Greenaway textiles and RCA student Jay Bonner’s tiles for the new Ismaili Centre in Cromwell Road prove Albert lives!
Albert would undoubtedly approve of what he’d find today. The Boilerhouse project, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, is perhaps the natural successor to his work.
The Norwood Review Edition #88. Published 1983