Prince Albert struggles to keep up appearances

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

July 01, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- One of the loneliest and longest-suffering victims of Britain's recession has been Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria.

The prince hasn't been seen much of late. He's dead, of course, but that's not the reason.

Albert has been immured these past three years in an immense protective box of plastic screening. This is surrounded by an opaque green fence, a hedge of scaffolding, and there are further barriers within.

Inside, the amiable prince, 14 feet tall, wrought in bronze, sits on his throne. He is spotted here and there with droppings from pigeons without respect for the royal person. Above him is a huge spire that, owing to its brittle iron supports, might fall on his head at any moment.

Albert, screened from view, tranquilly reads a catalog of the Great Exhibition of 1851 that he sponsored. This was an industrial show that drew the attention of the world.

Albert's prison rises 165 feet, above the trees of Kensington Gardens. It is said to have the dubious distinction of being the world's tallest piece of free-standing scaffolding.

The memorial inside was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott. It stands across from the magnificent, elliptical Royal Albert Hall, a place used for everything from the severest exhibition of high culture, to boxing matches, and which is the venue for London's communal summer Promenade Concerts.

Albert remains behind the scaffolding because the government says it can't spare the 10 million pounds [$16 million] in these hard times to clean him up and fix the monument so it won't fall down.

To that, the friends of the prince have a word -- more a Victorian exclamation: Tommyrot!

One such friend is Teresa Sladen. She's the secretary of the Victorian Society. She and the rest of her cabal are trying to instigate a Free Albert movement. They write exigent letters to their members of Parliament, to the Heritage Secretary Peter Brooke, to anyone with any pull in the government or out of it.

The National Rifle Association would approve of their strategies.

Ms. Sladen's comments on the neglect of a monument she describes as the very best example of the "Gothic Revival in England" could probably only be matched in cold fury by the late Victoria herself.

Ms. Sladen has nothing but disgust and contempt for those who would keep Albert behind a fence when all those tourists are outside snapping pictures of the Royal Albert Hall with no inkling of the visual splendor hidden right behind them.

Worse still, even Londoners are starting to forget all about the monument and its heroic proportions. "When you say it's a TTC marvelous thing, why people can't even remember it," said the peeved Ms. Sladen.

She described the Albert Memorial as emblematic of Britain's capital city -- "Significant in its way for London as the Eiffel Tower is for Paris."

It "belongs to the people of this country," she said. "The government has been extraordinarily philistine and uncaring in this matter. It is clear they don't appreciate the significance of it when 40 million pounds can be found to restore the state rooms at Windsor [Castle], really a mediocre collection of Georgian rooms, and they can't find 10 million to restore something of far greater historical and architectural value."

What really irritates those in the Free Albert movement is the thought that the government spends about $400,000 a year just to maintain the plastic and steel screening, which one wag, trying to make the best of a bad situation, described as, "the world's tallest eyesore."

So what is to be done? If the government won't provide the money, where do the Victorians turn?

Another representative of the Victorian Society, a young woman who asked that her name not be used, suggested an appeal to the queen. Everyone knows she's not bad off, and it would be an appeal not without justification.

The Albert Memorial was built by public subscription. The people, not the government of the time, paid for it. In fact the Victorians so loved the royal pair they chipped in more than the 137,081 pounds needed to complete it. The extra, 5,500 pounds, they gave to Victoria as a gift.

"Now," said the young Victorian, "we think we should have it back from her descendant, Queen Elizabeth II. It means about 300,000 pounds [about $480,000] in today's money. That would help a lot."

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