The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a huge success, with over six million visitors during its short six month run. This was equivalent to a third of the entire population of Britain at the time, most of which paid a shilling per entry.
To celebrate the exhibition’s success it was decided to erect a memorial on its former site in Hyde Park. Permission for this location was later refused and the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens was chosen instead.
The international competition
In July 1857 an international competition was launched inviting architects and sculptors to submit designs for a memorial to cost less than £6,000. Only 27 entries were received and the winning design was by Joseph Durham (with later modifications by Sydney Smirke).
This watercolour shows the winning model being viewed by Prince Albert within the grounds of the South Kensington Museum, now the Madejski Gardens of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Other figures include Francis Fowke and Smirke in the group behind the Prince, and in the foreground Henry Cole and his dog. The building in the background is the Sheepshanks Gallery, and to the right is the Iron Museum or 'Brompton Boilers'.
The statue on top of the model is Britannia, the female personification of Britain. Initially the focus of the memorial was to be a statue of the Prince Consort. Albert, however, he felt embarrassed by this and it was decided to use Britannia instead. She was later substituted for Queen Victoria, until Albert’s death in December 1861, when the Queen requested she be replaced by her husband.
The memorial, with a statue of Albert as the focus, was eventually erected in June 1863 in the RHS gardens, at the top of a water cascade. It was moved to its present position behind the Royal Albert Hall in the early 1890s.