The Queen Victoria Monument, Newcastle
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The Queen Victoria Monument, Newcastle

In July 1899, the Newcastle industrialist William Haswell Stephenson wrote to the press, offering to erect a monument to the ailing Queen Victoria in gratitude for his election as Sheriff of Newcastle. The late Victorian and Edwardian era was a period of heightened military and imperialistic fervour. BritainÂ’s urban spaces were frequently inscribed with narratives of local and national history through the building of statues and memorials. The buildings of the Queen Victoria Monument was an act of devotion, expressing NewcastleÂ’s loyalty to the crown.

In July 1899, the Newcastle industrialist William Haswell Stephenson wrote to the local press, offering to erect a monument to the ailing Queen Victoria in gratitude for his election as Sheriff of Newcastle. The late Victorian and Edwardian era was a period of heightened military and imperialistic fervour. Britain’s urban spaces were frequently transformed by the building of statues and memorials celebrating national identity. The building of the Queen Victoria Monument was a calculated act that expressed Newcastle’s loyalty to the crown.

Stephenson was not widely known as a patron of sculpture, but he selected a leading artist of the avant-garde to design the struture.   Sir Alfred Gilbert was an exponent of the ‘New Sculpture’, which can be understood as a British response to Art Nouveau. The overall form of Gilbert's design recalls his Jubilee Monument in Winchester (1887), but it is clearly a response to the location: the regal figure is seated beneath a canopy that echoes the majestic lantern of St. Nicholas’s Cathedral.

The unveiling of the monument.

The aged Queen is depicted as a supreme matriarch, an image Gilbert achieved by basing his rendering on his own mother: ‘I realised my deduction of the Queen from my mother, and thus got a more spiritual representation than if I had merely reproduced the Queen’s features and form only.’ The Queen holds the emblems of the monarchy, an orb and sceptre. Within its shrine-like canopy, the representation is thoroughly solemn and regal. Despite the semi-allegorical quality of the statue, the visualisation benefited from Victorian achievements in science. The likeness was derived from photographs, allowing Gilbert to capture the Queen with unprecedented accuracy and immediacy. In this representation, the aged Queen is undeniably human and mortal, a theme emphasised by the fact that Victoria died during its construction. The bronze base echoes that of the Shaftesbury Memorial in Piccadilly Circus, which Gilbert executed in 1887. The faces of sleeping babies appear amid Art Nouveau foliage, perhaps suggesting – on the cusp of the twentieth-century – that a new world was germinating. The folds of the voluminous dress are vividly realised, conveying both movement and transience. Despite the emphasis on the durability of Victoria’s reign, then, there is a sense of temporality. The monument explores the interface between the individual and her symbolic role as a figurehead. Discussing Gilbert’s earlier sculpture Comedy and Tragedy (1892), Jason Edwards remarks that Gilbert’s homosexuality and outsider status allowed him to peer behind the public mask of individuals and into their private selves – a tension felt by many of the Victorian men who were compelled to hide their sexuality. It is possible that this consciousness of the interface between public and private identities enabled Gilbert to see beneath Victoria’s public persona.

Located between St. Nicholas’s Cathedral and the Town Hall, the monument suggests the Queen’s dual role as head of Church and State. Gilbert was eager to obtain the apposite orientation, telling the Council that, ‘We cannot put Her Majesty with her back to the Church; the statue must be placed square with the tower, looking up Collingwood Street, with the left to the Church and the right to the Town Hall.’ For the architectural portions, Stephenson turned once again to his trusted architect, John Dyson, who designed the plinth of red granite on which the monument stands. Despite the political expediency of his commission, Stephenson was forced to postpone the unveiling ceremony when Gilbert fell into financial difficulties and went into exile in Bruges. Cast by Compagnie des Bronzes of Brussels, the monument was eventually unveiled on 24 April 1903 by Countess Grey, whose presence defined the Queen Victoria Monument as a counterpart to Grey’s Monument. Before she died, Victoria rewarded Stephenson with a knighthood. According to Johnstone Wallace, ‘The Knighthood to which he was graciously raised by the late Queen Victoria was appreciated by Newcastle as a complement to the city as much as to one of her best and truest citizens.’

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Comments (4)

A great article and very enlightening. The Queen does look both regal and human. It's almost like the orb ad scepter are weighing her down.

Ranked #1 in Art & Art History

Thanks, Kathleen, a very perceptive comment.

Gilbert is indeed a genius, by establishing his rendering on his own mother that result to a more realistic presentation of both human and majestic feature.

You do such great work bringing us such talented artists and craftspeople