Osborne House, situated on the Isle of Wight at Cowes, could be seen as the very definition of a quiet retreat from the city. Remodelled by Victoria and Albert from 1845 to 1849 as a place to get away to, the Italianate country house reflects family life and their personal interests the whole way through. Having not visited since a horribly rainy day when I was seven, our visit a few weekends ago was on a gorgeous sunny day which meant long walks around the parkland and also ice cream on the private Osborne beach. What is really interesting about this house, and its prestige as a past royal residence, is that regardless of the wide research done into Victoria’s strained and varying relationships to her children, it very much felt like a family home. It is huge and beautiful – I’d quite like it if that was the family home I could retreat to!
Victoria became queen at the tender age of 18. Her parents were Edward, Duke of Kent (fourth son of George III) and Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Her father died before she reached her first birthday, so she was brought up under the sole guardianship of her mother, who was convinced that Victoria would become queen of England one day. Her childhood was governed by strict rules, most famously the ‘Kensington System’, which effectively allowed her no time alone. As she grew older, it was decided that she would not be marrying a commoner, so her court looked to the protestant princes scattered across Europe. King Leopold of Belgium was exceptionally keen for Victoria to marry her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and sent Albert and his younger brother to England with their father in May 1836. King William IV instead favoured Prince Alexander of Orange and invited him and his brother to visit, also in May 1836. However, Victoria preferred Albert. They corresponded for the next few years and Victoria fell in love with her independence on the throne, making the organisation of an engagement very slow. Despite this, her Coburg cousins returned on October 10th 1839 – it could be said that Victoria fell in love with Albert upon second sight. Five days later he accepted a proposal from her. They married (despite Albert not necessarily being a popular choice) on February 10th 1840 in the Chapel Royal at St James’ Palace.
Victoria inherited the royal residences of Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Brighton Pavilion, all of which were deemed unsatisfactory for various reasons. Having seen it was for sale, she and Albert visited the Osborne Estate in October 1844, initially leased the house from Lady Isabella Blachford, and completed the purchase for £28,000 the following November. Albert was in charge of the ambitious building project there; having travelled around the continent and influenced by Italy and his native Germany, Victoria was in awe of his architectural taste. It looks like an Italian palazzo – its views across the Solent reminded Albert of his 1839 visit to the Bay of Naples. Upon the advice of Thomas Cubitt to build a completely new house instead of just an extension, the old house was demolished in May 1845, the royal family moved there in September 1846 and the work was completed in 1849. Both were enamoured with their new retreat, with Victoria writing:
“I get fonder and fonder of it, one is so quiet here, and everything is of interest, it being so completely my beloved one’s creation – his delight and pride.”
One of the most fascinating things about Osborne is the Swiss Cottage built for the royal children, with a surrounding garden that was also their own. Each had a patch of the garden to themselves, and you can see the stakes marking which part belong to who, as well as small wheelbarrows and carts with their names individually carved on. The cottage was built between 1853 and 1854, and upon entrance, it feels very much like a cottage, with functioning rooms where Victoria and Albert’s nine children could play at domestic life in miniature, learning cookery and housekeeping in an informal, private environment. It resembles an Alpine chalet, built from timber and decorated with carvings and German proverbs – certainly beating any Wendy house I’ve ever played in! In 1862, a museum was built near the cottage as a place to exhibit the expanding natural history collections the children owned. These are so interesting, with curiosities crammed into several cabinets, all meticulously labelled (as somebody who studies collecting and display, I found this really interesting!). What is also interesting is that this was a private world for the royal children – surrounded by trees, their flower and vegetable patches could be tended to, the mock battle station played in and things baked within the chalet.
Returning to the house, I can’t leave out the incredible Durbar Wing, mainly because of the beautiful Indian palace-inspired reception room, currently laid out as a dining room and surrounded by treasures presented to Victoria as gifts through her capacity as Empress of India. She was already Queen of the British Empire, which included Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, India and parts of the West Indies when she became Empress of India in 1877 (this was engineered by the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli as a means to bind the two countries closer together). The Wing was built in the early 1890s to both provide this large reception space and a private suite for Princess Beatrice (the Queen’s youngest daughter) and her family. Her passion for India is shown in this room. Though she never visited, she received many important guests from India and became friends with many more.
- Osborne House is definitely worth a visit – there is so much in the house, the chalet and the museum, besides the beach and all of the parkland! It is free for English Heritage members, and information on visiting can be found here: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/osborne/prices-and-opening-times
- There are also plenty of nice tea rooms and places to eat at Osborne (which I feel is compulsory in the country house experience!) and I particularly recommend the ice cream at the café beside the beach hut!
- I find the love story between Victoria and Albert absolutely fascinating, and although it is not necessarily relevant to Osborne House, the 2009 film The Young Victoria starring Emily Blunt in the titular role and Rupert Friend as Prince Albert is completely brilliant, with exquisite attention to detail and history and particularly great costumes!