The Victoria Memorial: Imperial Artefact17 minute read

The imperial artefact this essay will focus on is the Victoria Memorial. The memorial is an imperial artefact as it is a celebration of Queen Victoria- a figurehead of the British Empire. Queen Victoria is associated with “Britain’s great age of industrial expansion, economic progress and, especially, empire.” (Royal.gov.uk, 2009). Under Queen Victoria’s reign, holdings around the globe expanded to the greatest size of any empire in the history of the world. With the years 1815 to 1914 being referred to as “Britain’s imperial century, and at this time, the Empire included over 14 million square miles of territory and 450 million people. It included more than a quarter of the world’s population” (Victorianschool.co.uk, 2011).

The memorial was designed by the sculptor Sir Thomas Brock in 1901 with the completion of the memorial taking place in 1924. The memorial is a centrepiece of an urban planning scheme which included the creation of the Queen’s Gardens- designed by Sir Aston Webb and the refacing of Buckingham Palace. It was designed in honour of Queen Victoria following her death, with the meetings for the design of the memorial taking place behind closed doors without the involvement of the public, (Sutherland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 1901:6).

It has been used in several royal celebrations including the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II, with the memorial being used as a platform for a fireworks display alongside the addition of water jets (Western Mail, 2002). In 2012 it was used as a centrepiece for the stage of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Concert (Doncaster Free Press, 2012) and later on in 2012 the memorial marked the end of “Our Greatest Team Parade”, a parade celebrating the successes of the British teams at the 2012 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. It was also used as a finishing point for the marathon (BBC News, 2012), as well as being on the triathlon route (The Daily Telegraph, 2012). The main uses of the memorial can be seen to be either the celebration of monarchy or connected to public celebrations of British culture.

The cultural implications for contemporary politics in London lie in what the memorial itself is actually intended to represent. The memorial consists of various parts. At the top of the central pylon is a gilded bronze winged victory- the personified Roman goddess of Victory, (talesbeyondbelief.com, 2015) which is standing on a globe with a victor’s palm in one hand. Beneath the winged victory are personifications of constancy and courage. Underneath these are two eagles representing “Empire” and below these are enthroned statues of Queen Victoria, facing the Mall and “Motherhood” facing Buckingham Palace, with “Justice” facing north-west towards Green Park and “Truth” facing south-eastwards.

According to Brock, the symbolism of the Memorial was devoted to “qualities which made our Queen so great and so much beloved” (Sutherland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 1911), with the statue being placed to face towards the city whilst flanked by “Truth” and “Justice” as “she was just and that she sought the truth always and in circumstances” (Sutherland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 1911) whilst “Motherhood” represented her “great love for her people” (Sutherland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 1911). At the four corners of the monument are bronze figures, with lions representing “Peace” – a female figure holding an olive branch, “Progress”- a nude youth holding a flaming torch, “Agriculture” – a woman in peasant dress with a sickle and a sheaf of corn and “Manufacture” – a blacksmith in modern costume with a hammer and scroll.

There are three main cultural implications in regard to the memorial and contemporary politics in London. Firstly, ideas of monarchy and geographical space, which can be linked to contemporary debates around Republicanism. Secondly, issues in regard to the statue’s celebration of the British Empire without any indication of the processes of colonialism which helped to fuel it’s expansion and it’s link to contemporary extreme nationalism and ideas of British superiority. Lastly the memorial celebrates the Industrial Revolution, one of the main drivers of expanison of Empire during the Victorian Period, however there is no represetation of the poverty, rife during the Victoria era, which echos in the areas of London worst hit by austerty. This essay will discuss these issues in regard to the Victoria Memorial and the cultural implications of the artefact and how they link to contempary politics in London.

Royal Salute
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There are various issues in regard with the Victoria Memorial and it’s representation of monarchy. The Queen Victoria memorial remains the tallest monument to a King or Queen in England at nearly 25 metres tall (Royal.gov.uk, 2001). This raises questions in regard to the political implications of a statue of a monarch in a public space. Public space can be linked to social power. Lefebvre discusses a triad spatial model, including “the perceived, conceived space and lived space”(1991:33). The Victoria memorial can be described as a “conceived space”, characterised by the “representations which dominant groups in society produce to define space.”, (rudi.net, 2015), here the dominant group represented is the monarchy. It can be argued that the memorial is a reflection of social and political power, encouraging the acceptance of the monarchy and their political and social power in a public space, without the consent of the public, supporting the idea that “a conceived space is a place for the practices of social and political power; in essence, it is these spaces that are designed to manipulate those who exist within them” (Lefebvre,1991:222). The space given to statues can be seen as political,“space is … political, inseperable from the conflictual and uneven social relations that structure specific societies atspecific historical moments” (Deutsche,1998). The memorial is a prime example of uneven social relations due to its size, with the message being conveyed that monarchy is most important in regard to historical moments. “Honorific statues change the process of viewing and constructing public space” (Ma, 2013:131), the memorial results in the public automatically linking this public space with monarchy and the power that the monarchy holds in current day Britain, further adding to the political power that is held by the monarchy in the public sphere. There are issues in regard to the geographies of tourism and the space given to the memorial. As Jane Desmond notes, ‘tourism is not just an aggregate of merely commercial activities; it is also an ideological framing of history, nature and tradition; a framing that has the power to reshape culture and nature to its own needs’ (1999: xii). Artefacts add to tourism, especially those in public spaces that supposedly celebrate culture, here the ideology is clear that monarchy should be celebrated, framing British history as the history of royalty and reshaping public space in order to address and celebrate this. Spaces represent culture, however in regard to the Victoria Memorial only one specific culture is being represented – the culture of monarchy. Bodnar states that “public memory speaks primarily about the structure of power in society because that power is always in question in a world of polarities and contradictions and because cultural understanding is always grounded in the material structure of society itself’ (1991:15). The size of the memorial gives an indication of public memory allocated to the memory of Queen Victoria, giving an indication of the structure of power held by the monarchy in general. This power is materialised in the form of the memorial, with the scale of power demonstrated by it’s size.

The memorial was designed without the input of the public and therefore is completely dismissive of the opinions of those who may be against the monarchy in the past and present age. In regard to contemporary debates about monarchy it can be questioned whether or not such a large amount of public space should be dedicated to the monarchy. There are several arguments against the monarchy, with hereditary monarchy being seen as unfair and elitist. It can be argued that in a modern and democratic society nobody should be expected to defer to another placed on ranking in society given through birth and that these attitudes can be linked to an imperialist age as opposed to a so-called modern and meritocratic society. It can be argued that monarchy contradicts the idea of democracy in a so called democratic and modern nation. These heads of states are not elected, yet have the power to override the parliametary system (Republic, 2015), and demand deference to keep subjects in their place (Bertram, 2004:160). These values don’t live up to meritocracy. It can be argued that admist ideas of Republicanism in contemporary society it may not be appropriate to have such a representation of the monarchy’s political power.

The Victoria memorial celebrates Empire however it doesn’t indicate the processes of colonialism which helped to fuel it’s expansion. These processes of colonialism also link to contemporary issues of extreme nationalism which link to ideas of British superiority. The Victorian empire gained its growth and power via processes of colonialism. The Victoria Memorial doesn’t convey any of this, instead it participates in erasure of the history of colonialism. This causes many problems in contemporary society. Many Black Britons today,feel personally excluded by the public commemorative conventions of their country. “If monuments are about remembering, who or what gets ‘forgotten’ in the public discourse can be just as significant, there is a tendency ‘to suppress what is not meaningful or intuitively satisfying in the collective memories of the past”. (Dresser, 2007:165) The erasure of coloial history in the expansion of empire results in this suppression.During Queen Victoria’s reign, the Britisih empire expanded across the globe and strengthened its title as a world superpower. This was mainly due to the expansion of the empire via the acquisition of new colonies, during a time period known as ‘new imperialism’. Imperialism in this period was mainly driven by the search of profits, initially profits that could be gained from control of trade and then later by corporations’ need for cheap sources of labour and raw materials and also by the need to find new markets to sell manufactured goods.

Imperial conquest was often undertaken directly by large corporations such as the British East India Company. Later capitalist governments took a direct hand, notably in the conquest of most of Africa from the 1880s (Black Rose Anarchist Federation, 2002). This is known as ‘The scramble for Africa’. This was driven by a variety of different causes, European technological superiority which enabled Europeans to control the empire based on technological advances such as the steam engine alongside ideas of European superiority (classzone.com,2015).

The new attitude to Empire contained a strong element of racism and the denigration of other cultures and civilizations. Dominant Victorian notions of racial and cultural superiority had a strong moral and religious content, with the ‘uncivilized’ being human souls like any other, who deserved to be rescued and brought to eternal life through Christianity. Racist ideas were used to justify the process of imperial conquest and rule. Imperial control was justified on the supposed grounds that Africans and Asians ( and other colonised peoples such as the Irish) were unable to govern or develop themselves, and needed to be ruled by external forces. An example of the opinions held by those who supported imperialism can be seen for instance in Cecil Rhodes, a successful business man and major supporter of British expansion. Cecil stated that “Britons are the first race in the world and the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race… It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory and we should keep this one idea steadily before our eyes- that more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race, more of the best, the most human, most honourable race the world possesses’ (1877). Opinions such as this helped to fuel racist ideas rooted in slavery, that suported imperialism and colonial expansion.

The memorial celebrates the idea of “Motherhood”, this can be taken as referring to ideas of nationality, “In the British case, the imperial experience clearly helped to shape the British sense of themselves, as a nation and as a people” (Gilbert and Driver, 2001:24). This sense of nationality therefore is rooted in racist ideals linked to colonialism and slavery, however this is not reflected in the memorial. The attitudes of moral and intellectual superiority demonstrated by the Europeans during the era of new imperialism can be linked to those ideas which form the backbone of extreme nationalist groups such as UKIP and the EDL, focus on rhetoric similar to the ideas of “Motherhood” as represented by the memorial. The argument that Britain should be for the British can be mapped directly to ideas of British superiority as a result of imperialism. In light of this it must be questioned whether a memorial linked to ideals of superiority and colonialism should have a place so-called multicultural London. Lastly, the Victoria memorial can be said to celebrate the Industrial Revolution in regard to it’s celebration of “Progress” and “Manufacture”. “Progress” can be seen as representative of the Industrial Revolution and the advances of London in the global capitalist world, whereas “Manufacture” can be seen as directly linked to technological advances during the Victorian era. However, this doesn’t take into account the Victorian workhouse and the Victorian legacy of child labour. The workhouse added a new dimesnsion to the class system and poverty during the Victorian Empire which the memorial does not show. Poverty was a huge problem in the Victorian Era. Issues of overcrowding and slum housing were large concerns, ‘Hideous slums, some of them acres wide, some no more than crannies of obscure misery, make up a substantial part of the, metropolis … In big, once handsome houses, thirty or more people of all ages may inhabit a single room,’ (Chesney, 1972). Alongside slum housing and overcrowding, was the issue of the great disparities between the rich and the poor. Henry Mayhew comments on this stating that ‘…the condition of a class of people whose misery, ignorance, and vice, amidst all the immense wealth and great knowledge of “the first city in the world”, is, to say the very least, a national disgrace to us’(Mayhew, 1985). The memorial celebrates progresss however there is no acknowledgement of poverty.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, was introduced in order to deal with the rising costs of poor relief and reform a system from the Elizabethan era which was unable to cope with the urbanization and industrialization of the Industrial Revolution. This led to the formation of workhouses in which the able bodied poor were sent to work. Poverty was so rife that poor Victorians would put children to work at an early age, or even turn them out onto the streets to fend for themselves. In 1848 an estimated 30,000 homeless, filthy children lived on the streets of London. (AboutBritain.com, 2015).This can be seen to contradict with ideas of “Progress”, however the memorial fails to give any indication of this. Hundreds of thousands of workers migrated to industrial towns, forming a new kind of working class, earning extremely low wages. Women and children were often hired by employers and worked for even less (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 2015).

Victorian ideals of morality and poverty, especially ideas of the deserving and undeserving poor can be seen to link to the contemporary politics of austerity. Due to austerity measures children can be seen as living in Victorian levels of poverty (International Business Times, 2015), there has also been an increase in the dialogue of ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ in order to justify cuts in benefits and services (BBC News, 2013). It must also be noted that the Victoria Memorial itself was the target of defacement during anti-austerity protests, as the memorial can clearly be seen as a representation of the class system and unequal distribution of wealth in society. (The Telegraph, 2015)

In conclusion, the Victoria memorial is an imperial artefact that can be seen as holding many cultural implications in regard to contemporary politics in London. These cultural implications mainly arise from its representation of colonialism and empire. The cultural implications concern symbolism of the power of the monarchy in a public space alongside the contemporary debate for Republicanism. The second cultural implication in regard to the memorial is that although the memorial is supposed to symbolise “Truth” and “Justice”, there is no mention in the memorial of the mechanisms of colonialism that went into the expansion and success of the Victorian Empire, instead this is dismissed. Ideas of “Motherhood” and support for colonialism can be linked to racism and the ideology of the far right. The celebration of these ideals and their links to far right parties is problematic in a so called multicultural city. Lastly, the memorial celebrates ideas of “Progress” and “Manufacture”. These ideals link to the Industrial Revolution, however no indication is given in the memorial in regard to the problems of poverty which where inherent during the Victorian time period, as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, instead only the positive aspects of the Industrial Revolution are mentioned in terms of what it gained for the Empire.


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