Victorian Piles

David Cannadine

  • The Albert Memorial: The Monument in its Social and Architectural Context by Stephen Bayley
    Scholar Press, 160 pp, £18.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 85967 594 7
  • Victorian and Edwardian Town Halls by Colin Cunningham
    Routledge, 315 pp, £25.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0723 X

The English were not very good at commemorating their great men during the first three-quarters of the 19th century. The competition to select designs for the Nelson memorial was not held until 1838, and another three decades elapsed before the Trafalgar ensemble was completed with the addition of Landseer’s lions. The first major Wellington statue was placed, King Kong-like, atop Decimus Burton’s arch on Constitution Hill in 1846, but was so derided that it was removed in 1883 and consigned to the rustic obscurity of Aldershot’s military scrubland. A second official monument to the Iron Duke had been in the making since 1856, and this protracted process continued, seemingly interminably, until the memorial’s completion in St Paul’s in 1912. In both cases, public subscriptions were slow and insufficient; committees of management were ignorant, philistine and indecisive; competitions were rigged in advance or their results were set aside; architects were petulant, lethargic and unreliable; sculptors were jealous, petty, incompetent and indolent; and contractors were devious, dishonest or went bankrupt. ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,’ runs the Second Commandment: and for much of the 19th century the chaotic circumstances of monument-making in London lent strong (if unintended) support to this divine injunction.

In the light of these ominous precedents, it is hardly surprising that the construction of a memorial to Prince Albert should prove to be, in Lytton Strachey’s words, a ‘long, complicated and difficult’ process. The story of its conception, creation and construction, which lasted from 1862 to 1876, forms the subject of this book, which, unlike the memorial, is short, clear and undemanding. As the author explains, Victoria’s initial preference was for an obelisk, ‘provided it was in a style of sufficient grandeur’, and two alternatives, in granite or iron, both of them 500 feet high, were projected. Eventually, these schemes were abandoned, and a limited competition was mounted, with seven invited entrants. Six resulted in Classical designs, festooned with pedestals, arches, fountains, domes and columns. The seventh came from Gilbert Scott, still smarting from the snub administered to his Foreign Office designs by Palmerston, and was a Gothic extravaganza, loosely based on 13th-century market crosses, and lavishly coated with Puginesque fantasy. It won the day, and by so doing assured both the Prince’s reputation in death and the architect’s in life.

But Scott certainly worked hard for his laurels, caught as he was between a bereaved monarch able and anxious to interfere, and the dozen-odd artists, responsible for decoration, whose work had to be supervised and coordinated. Two different sculptors came and went before the central statue of Albert was completed. Should he be seated, standing or on horseback? Should he be dressed as a prince of peace, a Christian knight, or a field-marshal? The sculptured podium frieze, commemorating the eternal geniuses of poetry, music, art, painting and sculpture, also caused difficulties. Scott did not wish to be included, but Victoria insisted – so in he went. Four sculptured groups at the inner corners celebrated the industrial arts – agriculture, manufacture, commerce and engineering. Vague and technically insecure, they are aptly dismissed by the author as ‘over-complex sculptures by under-paid artists’. At the more distant corners were four more groups, representing selected nations from selected continents: Europe (with ‘Italy sitting on a broken column to signify her former greatness’), Asia (where ‘India unveils herself atop an elephant’), Africa (starring ‘a female genius of Egypt sitting astride a lion’) and America (including ‘Mexico arising from a trance’). On the flèche itself, the riot of exuberant decoration became even more intense: in the pediments of the four gables, there were mosaics of female allegorical figures representing the arts; and still higher up, 16 more statues commemorated the sciences and the Christian and moral virtues.

Ever since the winning designs were published, responses to this magical, velveteen, bejewelled creation have been varied, but primarily lukewarm. The unofficial opening ceremony brought tumultous and admiring crowds, but public interest soon waned. Unlike Nelson’s Column and the Victoria Monument, the Albert Memorial has never become a national celebrity in its own right, and its piazza has not become an established crowd-container in the manner of Trafalgar Square or the Buckingham Palace forecourt. While in the course of construction, the memorial was criticised by pedantic Gothicists and frustrated Classicists alike. One contemporary ridiculed it as ‘a confection of gingerbread which ought to be under a glass shade on a giant’s mantlepiece’. Osbert Sitwell, by contrast, thought it a ‘wistful, unique monument of widowhood’, but R.G. Collingwood found it to be ‘visibly misshapen, corrupt, crawling, verminous’. Hermione Gingold, on the other hand, presumably unaware of this swingeing condemnation, wanted to take it to her Desert Island, along with her discs.

In part, perhaps, this bemused and unenthusiastic response was the inevitable result, given the over-elaborate nature of the memorial itself. Its appearance was too fragile, too exquisite, too sacred. Much of its astonishing richness is scarcely visible, let alone intelligible, from ground level. The iconography, allegory and symbolism is too rich, too eclectic, too allusive. And the emotions which it was intended to evoke, embody and express were too pious, too dispersed and too sentimental for popular taste. Perhaps, then, much of the trouble also lay with Albert himself: criticised in life for being foreign, bourgeois, cerebral and interfering, he was hard to memorialise appealingly in death. Nineteenth-century Britain was indeed a heroic nation: but Albert was not an ideal 19th-century national hero. Despite – or possibly because of – his monument, he remains a skeleton at the feast of national fame, lacking the patrician taciturnity of Wellington or the romantic aura of Nelson. Lusty, unaffected patriotism was just not his thing.

Much of this story makes fascinating reading. Nevertheless, the claim that the book situates the monument ‘in its social and architectural context’ is not entirely convincing, as a glance at similar but superior studies, such as Trachtenberg on the Statue of Liberty and Physick on the Wellington Monument, will serve to show. Significantly, the author does not consider how the making and meaning of Albert’s memorial relate to these other 19th-century colossi. Nor does he explore in sufficient detail the relationship between popular perception of Albert in life and sentimental response to Albert in death. It would also be interesting to know what, if any, were the links between the slow progress on the monument in the 1860s and the extreme unpopularity of Victoria herself at that time. And we need to know much more about the way in which (to use Trachtenberg’s phrase) the changing ‘historical tissue of circumstance’ has altered the meaning of the monument since its completion. The author might even have cast a glance at Maurice Agulhon’s work on republican imagery and symbolism in 19th-century France, and speculated as to why the French put up statues to principles and ideals, while the English commemorate princes and idols. All in all, this is a well-meaning but slightly claustrophobic book: rather like Albert himself.

‘A town hall,’ Sir Charles Barry observed in 1859, ‘should in my opinion be the most dominant and important of the municipal buildings of the city in which it is placed. It should be the means of giving due expression to public feeling upon all national and municipal events of importance. It should serve, as it were, as the exponent of the life and soul of the city.’ Thus conceived, in terms almost as anthropomorphic as architectural, town halls occupied a particular place in the minds and cities of 19th-century people – the visual embodiment of their sense of urban community, the physical witness to its riches and renown, and the symbolic expression of pride in its past, confidence in its present, and faith in its future.

Ever since Asa Briggs’s celebrated essay on the building of Leeds town hall in his Victorian Cities (1963), the need for a detailed study of these 19th-century cathedrals of civic consciousness has been clear. But historians have shied away from both the architectural and the symbolic aspects of the subject, leaving only Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, in a brief and beguiling chapter in his History of Building Types (1976), to suggest some important lines of inquiry. Now, however, that omission is authoritatively repaired. The most flamboyant and familiar feature of the Victorian cityscape receives fitting treatment.

A rough count of the data presented at the back of the book suggests that town halls were built in two major phases. The first, associated with Vaughan’s ‘age of great cities’, was initiated by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, gathered momentum in the 1840s, and reached its climax two decades later. This, the author argues, saw the fullest development of town halls as self-consciously artistic creations, best exemplified in the romantic Classicism of Liverpool, the lavish extravagance of Leeds, and the Gothic splendours of Manchester. Then, at the close of the 19th century, there was another upsurge, partly because the ever-expanding municipal bureaucracy required increased office space, partly because the 1888 Local Government Act created a whole new clutch of County Boroughs, and partly because the Conservatives’ reform of London government in 1899 established 23 new municipalities, which had to be suitably housed. This later generation of town halls tended to be more complex and multi-functional than their predecessors, but there were still some architectural thrills: the rugged mass of Glasgow, the showpiece eclecticism of Sheffield, the Wren-like grandeur of Belfast, and the Ruritanian magnificence of Cardiff.

The financing, designing and building of these municipal monsters was far from easy. In some cases, an individual patron might foot the entire bill, as was the case at Todmorden. In others, a corporation committee might be responsible, as at Hull and Rochdale. Or there might be a competition, as at Manchester, Sheffield, Belfast, Cardiff and Colchester. Whichever method was adopted, there were often pitfalls. Would-be individual patrons might fight with local rivals over who was to pay, as with the Crossley and Ackroyd families at Halifax. Committees could be notoriously indecisive (as at Birmingham) or excessively penny-pinching (as at Preston). And competitions might be rigged (as at Bradford) or their results set aside (as at Glasgow). However much a town hall might be conceived as the embodiment of civic pride, its construction was often characterised by corruption, parsimony, ineptitude, small-mindedness, infirmity of purpose and division of opinion. Architects had to be strong-willed to stay the course and some, like Hansom, who was bankrupted by the building of Birmingham town hall, lacked the necessary force of character. Only the luckiest and most forceful were able to retain influence once the building had begun, as did Brodrick at Leeds and Waterhouse at Manchester, both of whom were able to persuade their respective corporations to part with over twice the amount of money originally earmarked for the project.

But, however protracted and difficult construction might have been, the finished product was almost always regarded with semi-religious awe. For its function was as much evocative as utilitarian. While the practicalities of such buildings dictated room for committees to meet in and offices for bureaucrats to administer from, expressive function was at least as important, providing a sense of community, an awareness of history and (it was hoped) an example of elevated taste. The functional form was invariably clothed with elaborate, allegorical ornamentation, in sculpture, tiles, paintings, plaster, furnishings and stained glass. As is well illustrated at Bradford, Rochdale and Colchester, a tower was essential. ‘Useless and extravagant’ they may have been, with their pinnacles, turrets, spires and cupolas, decorated with sculpture, statuary, battlements and gargoyles. But, like church spires, these town hall towers expressed the sentiments of their builders, and articulated a powerful system of popular belief.

For, as the author quite rightly stresses, a major aspect of these buildings was their ceremonial function, as the theatrical backdrop to those civic spectacles and celebrations which proclaimed the unity of the town to its inhabitants and its greatness to outsiders. Jamborees, such as mayor-making, freedom-giving and royal visits, all took place in these latterday temples of civic religion, where the statues and stained glass commemorated new saints, the robed mayor and aldermen officiated as the new priests, and the ceremonials served as the new liturgy.

The only real difficulty with this book, as with Stephen Bayley’s, is that the historical context is not as subtle as it should be. In recent years, urban historians have become increasingly aware of the changes, shifts, about-turns and variations which characterised the evolution of 19th-century local government in all its aspects. During the first three-quarters of the 19th century, for example, there may have been a great deal of civic pride. But town councils were only one among many competing municipal authorities; their powers and jurisdiction were often ill-defined and sometimes challenged; they rarely attracted the social leaders or prominent businessmen of the town; and, as a result, their proceedings were often characterised by myopic and penny-pinching bickering. What, in this context, should one make of the town halls of Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester? Were they monuments to civic pride? Or an attempt to create it?

Only in the late 19th century, when municipal collectivism brought with it a great expansion in the power and range of local government, did the corporation really become the fount of civic authority and the town hall the focus of municipal loyalty. Like the ceremonials for which they provided so appropriate a setting, town halls meant different things to different people at different times. The changing civic context, of which these buildings were both the articulation and product, still needs to be explored more fully.