History of Osborne
The old Osborne House in 1844, just before Victoria and Albert bought the estate. © The Royal Collection Trust © 2015 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought Osborne House on the Isle of Wight from Lady Isabella Blachford for £28,000 in October 1845. They wanted a home removed from the stresses of court life. Queen Victoria had spent two holidays on the Isle of Wight as a young girl, when her mother, the then Duchess of Kent, rented Norris Castle, the estate next door to Osborne. The setting of the three-storey Georgian house appealed to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; in particular, the views of the Solent reminded Albert of the Bay of Naples in Italy. They soon realised that the house was too small for their needs. They decided with advisors to replace the house with a new, larger residence.
1846. The first phase of building, the Pavilion, is completed. It houses the private rooms of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and the royal nurseries.
The new Osborne House was built between 1845 and 1851 in the style of the Italian Renaissance, complete with two belvedere towers. Prince Albert designed the house himself in conjunction with Thomas Cubitt, the London architect and builder whose company also built the main facade of Buckingham Palace. The couple paid for much of the new house’s furnishings by the sale of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. The Prince Consort participated directly in the laying out of the estate, gardens and woodlands to prove his knowledge of forestry and landscaping. At the more official royal residences, he had been overruled by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, who had official responsibilities for the grounds.
Queen Victoria’s bathing machine (restored)
Below the gardens on Osborne Bay was a private beach, where the Queen kept her own private bathing machine. According to a news report, “The queen’s bathing machine was unusually ornate, with a front verandah and curtains which would conceal her until she had entered the water. The interior had a changing room and a plumbed-in WC”.
The Queen’s sitting room
The house’s original square wing was known as ‘The Pavilion,’ containing the principal and royal apartments on the ground and first floors, respectively. The principal apartments, particularly, hold reminders of Victoria’s dynastic links with the other European royal families. The Billiard Room holds a massive porcelain vase that was a gift of the Russian Tsar. The Billiard Room, Queen’s Dining Room, and the Drawing Room on the ground floor all express grandeur.
In marked contrast is the more homely and unassuming décor of the royal apartments on the first floor. These include the Prince’s Dressing Room, the Queen’s Sitting Room, the Queen’s Bedroom, and the children’s nurseries. Intended for private, domestic use, these rooms were made as comfortable as possible. Both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were determined to bring up their children in a natural and loving environment. They allowed the royal children to visit their parents’ bedrooms frequently, at a time when children of aristocrats often lived at a remove from their parents in nurseries, joining them occasionally in public rooms, rather than in shared intimate spaces.
The Durbar Room
The ‘main wing’ was added later: it contains the household accommodation and council and audience chambers. The final addition to the house was a wing built between 1890 and 1891. This wing was designed by John Lockwood Kipling, father of the poet Rudyard Kipling. On the ground floor, it includes the famous Durbar Room, named after an anglicised version of the Hindi word durbar, meaning court. The Durbar Room was built for state functions; it was decorated by Bhai Ram Singh in an elaborate and intricate style, and has a carpet from Agra. It now holds gifts Queen Victoria received on her Golden and Diamond jubilees. These include engraved silver and copper vases, Indian armour, and a model of an Indian palace. The first floor of the new wing was for the sole use of Princess Beatrice and her family. Beatrice was the Queen’s youngest daughter, and she lived near Victoria during her life.
A portrait of the Munchi by Rudolf Swoboda (1888)
Osborne House expresses numerous associations with the British Raj and India, housing a collection of paintings of Indian persons and scenes, painted at Queen Victoria’s request by Rudolf Swoboda. These include depictions of Indians resident or visiting Britain in the 19th century, and scenes painted in India when Swoboda traveled there to create such works.
The royal family stayed at Osborne for lengthy periods each year: in the spring for Victoria’s birthday in May; in July and August when they celebrated Albert’s birthday; and just before Christmas. In a break from the past, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert allowed photographers and painters to make works featuring their family in the grounds and in the house. This was partly for their own enjoyment and partly as a form of public relations to demonstrate to the nation their character as a happy and devoted family. Many thousands of prints of the royal family were sold to the public, which led Victoria to remark, “no Sovereign was ever more loved than I am (I am bold enough to say).” Writing to her daughter Victoria in 1858 about the gloominess of Windsor Castle, Queen Victoria stated, “I long for our cheerful and unpalacelike rooms at Osborne.”
The grounds also included a ‘Swiss Cottage’ for the Royal children. The cottage was dismantled and brought piece by piece from Switzerland to Osborne where it was reassembled nearly a mile to the east of the main house. There, the royal children were encouraged to garden. Each child was given a rectangular plot in which to grow fruit, vegetables and flowers. They sold their produce to their father. Prince Albert used this as a way to teach the basics of economics. The children also learned to cook in the Swiss Cottage, which was equipped with a fully functioning kitchen. Both parents saw this kind of education as a way of grounding their children in the activities of daily life shared by the people in the kingdom despite their royal status.
Swiss Cottage was built in 1853-4
The Stable Block which later became the Royal Naval College
In 1859 Prince Albert designed a new and larger quadrangular stable block, which was built by Cubitts on the former cricket pitch. The building is now Grade II* listed.
After Prince Albert died at Windsor Castle in December 1861, Queen Victoria continued to visit Osborne House because it was one of her favourite homes.
Queen Victoria died at Osborne on 22 January 1901 with two generations of her family present. Although she adored Osborne, and her will left strict instructions that Osborne was to remain in the Saxe-Gotha family, her children did not share the attachment. With the exception of Princess Beatrice and Princess Louise, who both retained houses on the estate, the remaining Royals considered Osborne to be an inaccessible white elephant.
As such, Edward VII presented it to the nation on his Coronation Day in August 1902.
Queen Victoria in carriage at Osborne House (picture courtesy of Cyril Duclos)