South Kensington & Albertopolis
London’s South Kensington neighborhood attracts many visitors. In addition to the lure of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, which form the neighborhood’s northern border, the area includes several museums—among them the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum—that draw people of varying interests and ages.
The people working at or visiting one of the many embassies or consulates in South Kensington also boost the number of people on the streets as do the students and professors from the prestigious colleges—the Royal College of Art, Imperial College, and the Royal College of Music—in the neighborhood.
South Kensington owes much of its look and institutions to Victorian England’s sense of its place in the world; that would be, of course, top dog. To demonstrate its industrial, economic, and military prowess to the world, Britain hosted the Great Exhibition of 1851 to promote the use of science and art in industry. To house the event, Sir Joseph Paxton designed the Crystal Palace, a beautiful structure of iron and glass that was constructed in Hyde Park. The displays ranged from precise scientific instruments to modern factory and farm equipment (the McCormick reaper from the United States was a big hit). More than 13,000 displays were on view.
The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (usually referred to as the Royal Society of Arts, or RSA) had suggested the exhibition and RSA member Prince Albert served as chief cheerleader and promoter. Despite naysayers—including most members of Parliament—the Great Exhibition was a tremendous success. In its almost six-month lifespan, the industrial fair attracted more than 6.2 million visitors. Profits from the Great Exhibition financed the land acquisitions for the three previously named museums, Royal Albert Hall, and other cultural institutions now established in South Kensington, or “Albertopolis,” as the area is sometimes called.
The institutions and structures that arose in Albertopolis are appropriately Victorian in scope and design—grand, proper, and often high-minded. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were married for 20 happy (by all accounts) years; the marriage produced nine children. Queen Victoria never fully recovered from her grief after the prince died of typhoid fever at age 42 in 1861. Victoria spent the remainder of her long reign in mourning. Royal Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial were built to honor the Prince Consort.
Royal Albert Hall
Completed in 1871, Royal Albert Hall is an oval building that is a venue for musical concerts (classical to rock) and other events such as boxing matches and business conferences. Royal Albert Hall is best known for being the home of “The Proms,” a summertime series of concerts that are sponsored and broadcast by the BBC.
Made of red brick with an ornate terra cotta frieze that circles the building, the Hall’s domed glass and wrought iron roof was an engineering feat of the time. Not surprisingly, the building was designed by engineer and architect Francis Fowke, a captain in the Royal Engineers. Fowke did not live to see his design take shape; another officer of the Royal Engineers, Major General Henry Scott, completed his work.
The Albert Memorial
The Albert Memorial, which was completed in 1876, is separated from Royal Albert Hall by the Kensington Gore. Sir George Gilbert Scott’s design features a gilded statue of Albert sitting under a gothic spire. The prince is surrounded by marble statues representing Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas (look for the buffalo); other statues symbolizing agriculture, commerce, engineering, and manufacturing are prominent.
Over one hundred artists, composers, and poets appear as part of the Memorial’s elaborate Frieze of Parnassus near its base. One of the grandest high-Victorian gothic extravaganzas anywhere the Albert Memorial, commissioned by Queen Victoria in memory of her husband who died of typhoid in 1861, is officially titled the ‘Prince Consort National Memorial’.
by Katie Calvert