Earlier this year I spent a day at Kensington Palace visiting the ‘Victoria Revealed’ exhibition. Having visited KP many times before and in the light of the popular ITV1 Drama ‘Victoria’ I was excited to see the rooms and exhibits related to the early part of her life and reign.
The Princess Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on 24 May 1819 and following the death of her Uncle King William IV she become Queen Victoria here in 1837.
I knew so little about her early years prior to the ITV series and as far as a historical drama series can be, I think it has been eye opening to see the younger Victoria portrayed as opposed to the image of the dour overweight widowed Queen most of us remember through the later photographic images that emerged during the latter part of her reign.
It got me thinking about the reality of Queen Victoria. Maybe those images were true to some extent, but I liked to think that there was still a spark of the old Queen in there even in her later years. To think that she was so deeply affected by the relatively early death of her beloved husband Prince Albert made me eager to see more of her life and the other places she called home.
Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Balmoral are all places inextricably linked with the late Queen throughout her reign but the one place I was more interested to see for a truer reflection of her life as a Queen, Wife and Mother, was her beloved Osborne House.
Osborne House was built as a family home by the sea rather than a palace and is a unique and in my opinion a contemporary design for its day. Unlike other royal residences Osborne was only lived in for 55 years and so clearly shows the personal tastes of Victoria and Albert, in the house collections. After Albert’s death in 1861 the Queen did add to the collections but did not alter the Prince’s arrangement of it.
Whilst the interior rooms are modeled largely on any classic London Georgian townhouse of the day, its over arching feature is that of Grand Italian renaissance design. In fact, its exterior would hardly look out of place against the back drop of the great Italian Lakes, Como, Garda or Maggiore, however given its stunning vista down to the Solent on a Sunny day, you are almost immediately transported to the Mediterranean regardless of being a few miles south of the UK mainland on the Isle of Wight.
The House and Estate was a labour of love for the Queen and her Husband and despite the grandeur, you really get the impression that this place was indeed a private place for them to be a family when the couple wanted to escape the relentlessness of court life.
Albert, who once complained that he was the ‘husband, but not the master of the house’ immediately set about creating a family home that would enable him to indulge his passions in estate management, agricultural improvement, building, landscape design, gardening and education. It was written in Victoria’s Journals at the time that Albert was heavily involved with all aspects of creating the new house and estate.
Albert threw himself wholeheartedly into designing the house and estate and in his own words he was ‘partly forrester, partly builder, partly farmer and partly gardener.’ Albert laid out all the driveways and paths , for privacy adding bends in the main drives to hide the house. It was quite evident that he finally felt like the master of his own creation here. And he has done an incredible job of creating a family estate where his wife and children could roam and grow, without the prying eyes of the public.
Indeed it was said that the private landing place of Osborne Beach was one of the main attractions of the estate to the Royal Couple. And Prince Albert was indeed a firm believer in the benefits of sea bathing. The beach itself was much loved and used by the family, and it was here that the older children would swim daily and the younger children were taught to swim in a specially created floating bath.
Albert had clear ideas about how he wanted his children to be raised, and here at Osborne, he put into practice many of the educational ideas he had masterminded to give his children a grounding away from the privilege of court life.
The Swiss Cottage and cottage garden was created with just such a plan in mind. Albert recreated many aspects of his own education, including a children’s garden, model fort and museum. The children were given identical plots arranged into beds to grow flowers, fruits and vegetables which they then sold to Albert at commercial rates as a lesson in market gardening. The Princess Beatrice kept a colony of Angora rabbits housed in hutches in the Paddock area and she would use their wool spun and woven into little items for local bazaars and markets.
The Swiss cottage itself Albert intended to be a place his children could learn cookery, housekeeping and entertain their parents. And in fact the children often served luncheon or tea to their parents here as the Queen worked on her letters and state paper. Originally the sitting room area of the cottage housed a model shop called “Spratt, Grocer to Her Majesty” which was used by the children to practice keeping accounts that were then checked for accuracy by Prince Albert.
The children reveled in this miniature world and Alice later wrote that her times at the Swiss cottage had been the happiest of her life; ‘no children were ever so happy, so spoilt with all the comforts and enjoyments that children could wish for, as we were.’
It is absolutely evident throughout the tour of the house itself that the family element of Osborne was central to its appeal. Queen Victoria’s sitting room houses two desks, side by side, and the couple worked here together during the day on the dispatch boxes that arrived from London. The Queen sat on the left side and Albert’s desk to the right is identical, except that the drawers are shallower to accommodate his longer legs!
This room has views across the terraces to the parkland and the Solent and Victoria’s journals include references to watching the moonlight shining on the Solent from the Balcony. She wrote in 1846 ‘Vicky and Bertie alternately take supper in our room. Then little Helena is brought down for a quarter of an hour followed by Affie and then Alice.’
The royal family clearly took a great deal of delight in their seaside family home and spent as much time here as possible. Both the Queen and Prince enjoyed walking and riding in the park and it was apparently rare for them to stay indoors all day. Victoria’s references in her Journal to reading and writing under the trees, or taking tea with the children in the Swiss cottage. Having sat myself under these trees, I can quite honestly say I was completely captivated with the estate and understand why such a magical home by the sea would appeal to a family so completely bogged down by a busy life in central London and why this escape would be so important to the Couple and the wider family.
Life here was clearly a far more relaxed place, with space to do as a normal family would. Collect shells on a beach, run and play with siblings among the extensive gardens and get lost in the woodlands and orchards. One can almost taste the idyllic childhood on the salty seaside breeze.
But in 1861 the tone of the place became a far more somber affair. Following the death of Prince Albert on 14 December, the widowed Queen was so overcome by grief that she immediately retreated to Osborne, supported by her Daughters and her Uncle Leopold King of the Belgians along with Albert’s Brother Ernst from Coburg.
The Queen remained at Osborne until March 1862. She never ceased to mourn. She wore black with a white widows cap, and her writing paper and envelopes were thickly bordered in black.
And it is this image of the lowly widow that has become synonymous of the Victorian era.
Having visited Osborne on a truely gloriously summer’s day in August, I got it. I got why this place would be the place she would spend most of her time from when Albert dies. Apart from the family mausoleum at Frogmore on the Windsor estate, where Prince Albert was laid to rest, I can imagine nowhere else on earth would bring her so closely back to him.
Every brick laid, every painting hung, every planted tree, Albert’s memory is ingrained so deeply into this estate that I completely understand why the family wanted to preserve it as was. Even in the 1890s the Queen stayed at Osborne for 90-100 days each year continuing the daily routine established for over 50 years.
On 17 January 1901 the Queen suffered a slight stroke and the family were summoned to Osborne. She was nursed in her bedroom, but on 22nd January surrounded by her family, the 81 year old Queen died. For the next 50 years the bedroom was set up as a family shrine.
Osborne was the private possession of the Royal family but Edward VII did not need it, preferring to remain at Sandringham.
On coronation day in 1902 King Edward VII wrote …’As Osborne is sacred to the memory of the late Queen, it is the King’s wish that….His people shall always have access to the house which must forever be associated with with her beloved name.’ However, Edward did not want people to have access to Queen Victoria’s private apartments so the first floor was sealed by iron gates which are still there today. In 1954 Queen Elizabeth II gave permission for these gates to be opened and the public admitted.
My own personal experience of this room is quite an eerie one. My husband remarked of feeling uneasy in this room and felt a distinct chill. I however, found myself staring at the remarkably small bed, imagining her laying there and as if to emphasize the image further, immediately outside the room hung a watercolour painting of the late Queen on her deathbed draped with white lace and her wedding veil. The bed also strewn with white lilies. After all the years of black mourning, the contrast of this painting is stark and almost ghostly. Maybe serving as a metaphorical reminder of the peace and tranquility she undoubtedly found here at Osborne.
There is so much other history here at Osborne, in all honesty, I have barely scratched the surface of it! But I wanted to concentrate on the love affair between the house and the couple and what this place meant to them as a family.
The house is now run by English Heritage, and should you ever find yourself on the Isle of Wight, I would highly recommend a days visit to this lovely corner of the island. In co operation with the Royal Collection, English Heritage is slowly re presenting rooms at Osborne by removing objects that have arrived after 1901 and replacing them with some that left earlier. As I have tried to convey, it is seeking to re emphasize the value of Osborne as a family home. And truly, here, you will never feel more close to them.