Where in the UK can you feel like you are at a villa in Italy? The answer is Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
Ok, so you might only feel like you are in Italy if you are visiting on a warm sunny day, but it’s worth suspending disbelief for a few hours. Osborne is one of the most homely royal residences one is ever likely to visit, even if it does seem rather too large and ornate for the ‘cosiness’ Victoria attributed to it.
When Victoria came to the throne in 1837, she inherited Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Brighton Pavilion as her homes. The latter had been the seaside home of King George IV, and Victoria did visit it three times, in 1837, 1838 and again with her young family in 1842, but it was not to her liking. She complained that she could “only see a morsel of the sea” and there was little privacy as by that time, Brighton was an incredibly popular seaside resort. In the 1840s, she decided to sell the Pavilion (it was eventually sold to the town of Brighton in 1850). The search was on for a seaside home that fitted more with her longing for a ‘normal’ family life.
Victoria had visited the Isle of Wight with her mother some years previously, and she remembered and liked it. She and her husband Prince Albert bought the Osborne Estate in 1845. They set about creating a new family home as an escape from court life at London and Windsor. Building started immediately and the Pavilion wing was built in 1846 to house the family’s private apartments. This was followed by the household wing in 1851. The house was designed by Albert and the builder Thomas Cubitt in the Italianate style, which then became so popular it was copied throughout the British Empire and referred to as ‘the Osborne style’.
Osborne was much loved by Victoria and Albert. Between its completion and Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria and her family bathed at the private beach, sketched, walked and rode, took tea in the summerhouse and celebrated the Queen’s birthday here every year. An elaborate ‘playhouse’ (the Swiss Cottage), play barracks and a vegetable garden were all created for the royal children. It was here that the family could live as normal a life as possible and Osborne was much loved.
When Albert died, Victoria found solace at Osborne, spending her first months of widowhood there. Her ministers and Court had to come to her as she kept herself hidden from the world in her all-consuming grief and John Brown, her favourite highland servant and a man she came to depend on, was brought down to Osborne to console her. There is now a bench dedicated to him in the gardens.
Throughout her long years of her widowhood, Victoria spent much of her time at Osborne, even after she returned to public duties. She ensured that she would have her family around her, constructing the Durbar Wing in 1890, partly to provide a banqueting room (something previously missing at Osborne) and partly to house her youngest daughter, Beatrice, and her family. When Beatrice had told Victoria she wished to marry, the monarch did not speak to her daughter for 6 months, and then only agreed to the marriage on the condition that Beatrice and her husband would live with her.
Victoria died at Osborne in 1901 and the estate passed to the new King Edward VII. He did not want it, as he had his own country house at Sandringham, and nor did any other member of the Royal Family. Much of the land was sold, and in 1904 parts of the house were opened to the public. The Queen’s private apartments were, however, kept locked. They were finally opened to the public in 1954 and if you visit today, you can still see the previously locked iron gates now open and resting against the walls. Parts of Osborne were converted into a convalescent home and the Royal Naval College was established in 1904 in the grounds, later attended by the future Kings Edward VIII and George VI. The Naval College and convalescent home have since closed, and the whole estate is managed by English Heritage.
As one wanders around Osborne today, the sense of family can still be felt – statues of the children line the walls, and their names are still in place on their wheelbarrows at the vegetable garden. Upstairs, the nursery feels as if small children have only just left the room, and in the Queen’s sitting room, her desk is set out just as if she will be returning any minute, full of family photos and mementoes and with the bell pulls to summon servants, ready to be used.
Osborne saw its fair share of sad occasions too. In the dining room, one can imagine its setting as the sombre wedding of Princess Alice, Victoria’s third child, in 1862. Albert had died the previous December and the Court was still in full mourning. Victoria commented that the wedding felt “more like a funeral”. The dining room was also where Victoria lay in state after her death.
The overwhelming feeling at Osborne though, is of a home where a lively young woman and her family enjoyed many happy summer days. It is a pity that Victoria is mainly remembered as an old, humourless woman in widow’s weeds, when here in the 1840s and 50s she was at her most vibrant.
And after viewing the interior, an albeit rather grand family home, the visitor can step outside and marvel at the immaculate terraces and the sea views and wonder at the absurdity of being at an Italianate villa in the English countryside…