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Monday, May 11, 1998 Published at 16:43 GMT 17:43 UK


Waking up Albert

A new dawn for the Albert Memorial

When Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria shut herself away. Overwhelmed by grief, she did not appear in public for nearly two years. Even after that she largely remained a recluse, leaving the palace grounds only when necessary and appearing constantly in mourning dress.

[ image: Restoration begins]
Restoration begins
But her grief was not entirely private. She believed that the country should share in her loss. And so in 1863 she built an extravagant monument in London's Hyde Park to her consort.

But for the last eight years, the Albert Memorial has been a monument to no one. Shrouded in scaffolding for eight long years, most young people do not know what it is - let alone what it looks like.

[ image: Angels with clean faces]
Angels with clean faces
This week, all that has begun to change. After a complex restoration, the 200 feet of gold leaf, Venetian mosaics, glass 'jewels' and neo-Gothic Victorian statuary has begun to be unveiled. The monument will memorialise not only Albert but the arts of the Victorian era.

The upper levels indeed are a visual feast. Four allegorical Venetian mosaics represent architecture, painting, sculpture and poetry. Statues of the Christian and moral values shine in gold. Eight-foot gilded angels raise their arms heavenwards from the spire.

[ image: No detail has been overlooked]
No detail has been overlooked
Designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, the structure has always been something of an acquired taste. A critic of the day dubbed it 'organic nullity disguised beneath superficial exuberance.'

But Sir Gilbert - who was knighted for his design - felt that the memorial's statuary, decoration and iconography mattered as much as its structure. He once said that the embellishments form the memorial's 'real life and soul.'

Despite its extravagance, poor maintenance and design have plagued the memorial. For years, the roof leaked like a sieve. As the inner iron structure rusted, it expanded, causing crack upon crack.

The pieces of mosaic, bedded in a mortar which swelled when wet, constantly popped off. Even the gold on Albert's statue dripped off in a sticky mess.

[ image: The gilded glory of the orb]
The gilded glory of the orb
In short, renovators have had their work cut out for them.

Virtually the entire upper half of the monument had to be dismantled. The spire was reassembled with over 100 tons of lead recovering its iron core.

The orb and cross have been re-gilded and given new set of glass 'jewels'. Albert's statue will re-emerge gleaming, coated with 675 20-page books of 24-carat gold leaf.

[ image: Proud to bear its cross]
Proud to bear its cross
Nevertheless, the project is a year ahead of schedule and 2.8 million under budget. It is an achievement Sir Jocelyn Stevens, the chairman of English Heritage, is proud to announce.

"[Many] will have forgotten what a gloriously extrovert piece of sculpture and Victorian craftsmanship it is," he said.

Forgotten maybe but the memory promises to be worth reviving.

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