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Offering a fascinating window on the private life of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, former royal holiday residence Osborne House is a jewel in the Isle of Wight’s crown — and now one of the country’s top tourist attractions
As the waves lap on the pristine, tree-lined beach, you can see why Queen Victoria called Osborne her little paradise. “It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot,” she said of her palatial holiday home in East Cowes on the Isle of Wight.
The beach is Osborne art curator Michael Hunter’s favourite part of the estate. “It was originally Osborne’s front door — it’s incredible to think of all the visitors who would have arrived by boat from the mainland, or from Europe, to visit Victoria,” he says.
After falling in love with the Isle of Wight during childhood visits, Victoria was determined to buy a property here. In 1845, she and Albert purchased Osborne and set about transforming it into the perfect retreat for their fast-growing family. Osborne was a second home for Victoria for more than 50 years, a place where she entertained foreign royalty and visiting ministers, and found solace after Albert’s death in 1861.
“Osborne has changed very little since Victoria and Albert’s time,” says Hunter. “Inevitably, some changes were made after Victoria’s death in 1901, but her rooms and the items in them have survived remarkably intact.” Despite its enormous size, there is still a family feel to the house. The portraits alone provide a real lesson in the history of the Victorian royal family, from how the queen relaxed, to how her children entertained themselves.
Osborne’s state rooms are opulent, however, as befitting one of Europe’s most important royal families. Marble sculptures line the Grand Corridor, recalling the royal couple’s love of the arts. Portraits and frescos are reminders of the family’s links to the crowned heads of Europe and of the unrivalled supremacy of the British Empire. Most of the artefacts at Osborne are still owned by the Royal Collection.
The lavish Durbar Room reflects Queen Victoria’s pride in her title Empress of India, granted in 1887. Victoria had huge respect for her Indian “subjects” and in 1890 she ordered a new banqueting chamber to be constructed in 16th-century North Indian style, with astonishingly ornate plasterwork crafted by Indian plasterer Bhai Ram Singh. Symbols of India appear everywhere, with a handsome peacock (which took 500 hours to make) standing proudly over the chimneypiece.
There’s more opportunity to peek into the private world of Victoria and Albert in the nursery and family rooms. In the queen’s sitting room, visitors can see the balcony where she and Albert listened to nightingales on a summer’s evening. Her bathtub still stands in her dressing room, while next door is the bedroom where she died in 1901. After Albert’s death, Victoria kept his private suite as it was in his lifetime, with many of the things he used lying just where he left them.
But Osborne is not just about the house — the surrounding grounds and gardens reflect Victoria and Albert’s interest in gardens and the enjoyment of the outdoor life. They spent as much time as possible outdoors, which gave Albert the opportunity to indulge his passions for gardening and planting trees, many of which can still be seen.
Visitors can also explore the world of the royal children at the Swiss Cottage, with the interests of each of the nine princes and princesses on show in the ongoing “Childhood at Osborne” exhibition. You can also party like it’s the 19th century at The Great Victorian Show in May, enjoy the glory of Osborne’s grounds with English Heritage’s Blooming Gardens event in June, and discover how the royal couple transformed the festive season with a Victorian Christmas weekend in December.
Visit english-heritage.org.uk/Osborne for full event listings, ticket prices and opening times