Located a short ferry ride across the Solent from Portsmouth, UK, the Isle of Wight is best known for its quaint seaside resort towns, family-friendly attractions, temperate climate, and sailing regattas, as well as for Osborne, the idyllic private residence of Queen Victoria between 1846 and her death in 1901.
Although Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha possessed three royal residences (Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, and the Royal Pavilion at Brighton), none of these were thought suitable for raising their young and growing family in the 1840s and 1850s. Enamoured of the Isle of Wight's seaside privacy and tranquility, and able to journey from Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace to the island in under four hours courtesy of the expanding British railway network, Victoria and Albert leased the Osborne estate of the Blachford family in 1844 and subsequently purchased the property outright in 1845 for £28,000 (over £3 million today). With the original Osborne House (built 1774-81) unfit to house the Royal couple, their eventual nine children, and household staff, Prince Albert set about designing a new house, acting as architect and designer for the project, assisted by his old friend and artistic adviser Ludwig Gruner. His design incorporated the latest construction techniques and fireproofing and Albert commissioned London-based builder Thomas Cubitt to demolish the original house and construct the new house in its place. The new, multi-wing Osborne House was built between 1846 and 1851 in the style of a Renaissance Italian palazzo, as the temperate climate on the Isle of Wight and the sweeping views of the Solent reminded Albert of the Bay of Naples. For the estate's gardens and landscaping, Albert personally oversaw every aspect of the design, favouring poplars, magnolias, rhododendrons, and azaleas, as well as evergreen-lined drives and walkways; he even personally planted a number of trees on the property. The Royal Family's private apartments were housed in the Pavilion, the first wing to be completed in 1846, followed by the household wing in 1848, and the main wing in 1851. In the years that followed, additional structures and amenities built on the sprawling property included gardens and walkways; a Swiss cottage, miniature fort, and museum for the royal children; a model farm to supply Osborne with fresh food; servants facilities; and stables for 50 horses and carriages. In 1890-91, the Durbar wing was added to Osborne House, featuring a spectacularly ornate, Indian-themed dining room, reflecting Victoria's assumption of the title of Empress of India in 1877.
Queen Victoria and her family spent much time living at their beloved Osborne during more than 50 years. By 1850, the family had established a regular pattern of visits to Osborne in March, May, part of July and August, and the period between late November and just before Christmas, after which time they would return to Windsor. Although built as a secluded private residence, Osborne offered no respite to Victoria from her work as head of state, and she spent several hours most days reviewing official papers sent to her in government dispatch boxes, reading and writing letters and telegrams to government ministers, and hosting meetings of the Privy Council in Osborne House's Council Room. Given the good rail, steamship, and telegraph connections between the Isle of Wight and London and the European continent, Osborne often played host to visiting Prime Ministers, foreign royalty, diplomats, and representatives of the British Empire. A particularly noteworthy royal visit to Osborne was that hosted by Victoria for Emperor Napoleon III of France and his wife, Empress Eugénie, in August 1857, where the friendly and informal atmosphere of Osborne helped cement the alliance between the United Kingdom and France after the Crimean War.
On 22 January 1901, Victoria died in her bed in Osborne House, surrounded by members of her family, including her son and heir, Edward (soon to be crowned King Edward VII), and her eldest grandson, German Emperor Wilhelm II. Although Victoria had left instructions in her will that Osborne was to be kept within the Saxe-Gotha family, Edward VII did not possess his mother's attachment to the property and chose to donate the estate to the nation in 1902. Several of the house's rooms were thereafter opened to the public, with parts of the main and household wings being converted into a convalescent home for military officers, and some of the grounds used to accommodate the new Royal Naval College Osborne from 1903. The Royal Naval College Osborne was closed in 1921 and, in 1955, Queen Elizabeth II granted permission for Victoria and Albert's private apartments in Osborne House to be opened to public display, having been previously converted into a museum accessible only by members of the Royal Family. Taking over management of Osborne from the Department of the Environment in 1986, the English Heritage Trust launched an extensive program of restoration and redecoration, which was extended to include the whole house following the closure of the convalescent home in 2000.
Today, Osborne is a popular English Heritage tourist attraction, with the current estate encompassing 354 acres of the original property, which measured 2,000 acres at its largest in 1864. Visitors can tour the royal residence, including the beautifully-restored private apartments of Victoria and Albert, the breath-taking Durbar Room, and several official rooms in the main and household wings; marvel at the house's Italianate terraced gardens; stroll through the 18th century brick-walled kitchen garden with its greenhouses, pergolas, and fruit trees; hike the kilometre from the house to the beach for calming views of the Solent, a treat from the seaside ice cream parlour, and a look at Victoria's modesty-preserving 'bathing machine'; and visit the royal children's Swiss cottage and garden plots. A minibus runs between the house and the beach for elderly or handicapped visitors, and the gift shop in the former Petty Officers Quarters offers a range of Osborne-themed merchandise and souvenirs.
Without further ado, let's visit Osborne on the Isle of Wight...
|The seaside town of Ryde on the northeast coast of the Isle of Wight, as seen from the end of Ryde Pier, where the Wightlink catamaran ferries arrive.|
|The Petty Officers' Quarters, part of the military convalescent hospital opened on the Osborne estate after Queen Victoria's death. Visitors pass through this building to purchase admission tickets. A cafe and gift shop is also located inside.|
Below: The guide provided to visitors, showing key points of interest and amenities on the Osborne estate.
Below: An English Heritage 2019 promotional pamphlet for Osborne.
Below: The interpretive pamphlet for the special exhibit, 'Celebration: Victoria & Albert's Birthdays at Osborne'. Victoria's first birthday at Osborne was her 29th, on 24 May 1848. She was awakened by the Band of the Royal Marines playing under her window and, after dressing, went to look at her birthday gifts in company with Albert and their children. Albert's birthday celebrations at Osborne usually included parties held in marquees on the grounds of the estate, to which all of Osborne's staff were invited. The ritual of presenting tables piled high with gifts for Victoria or Albert on their birthdays contributed to a significant collection of art amassed by the Royal court, most especially during the 1840s and 1850s. Although birthday tables continued to be presented to Victoria after Albert's death, they no longer served as a major part of family life as they had when he was alive.
|A bronze bust of Queen Victoria on display in the corridor of the household wing alongside other works of art.|
|A closer view of the chandelier and the elaborate gilded ceiling decoration in the Council Room. The chandelier hangs from a plaster medallion featuring the badge of the Order of the Garter and is surrounded by other royal emblems on the ceiling.|
|A red-carpeted staircase in the main wing of Osborne House. The elder children of Victoria and Albert lived in the main wing of the house once they were too old for the nursery in the Pavilion.|
|Looking down onto the Pavilion and lower terraces from a window in the children's nursery suite on the Pavilion's second floor. In addition to the suite of nursery rooms, the second floor also contained maids' bedrooms and the nursery kitchen.|
|Another view of the Queen's dressing room, featuring a small fireplace and various works of art on the walls.|
|The drawing room was sparsely and more formally furnished until the 1870s, when the furniture was re-arranged to more comfortably accommodate social engagement.|
|A desk looking out onto the terrace. Seen in this photograph are a few of the idealised statues of Victoria's children carved by Mary Thornycroft between 1845 and 1860. The drawing room also contains a number of portraits and landscape paintings.|
|A marble bust of Maharajah Duleep Singh, sculpted sometime between 1850 and 1856 by Baron Carlo Marochetti. This bust was given by Victoria as a gift to Albert for his 37th birthday in 1856.|
|A gold, silver, and ivory casket with a carving of the Hindu god Vishnu lying on a snake. This is one of several items sent to Queen Victoria from India to celebrate her Golden and Diamond Jubilees.|
|Looking along the Pavilion terrace, with the main wing visible in the background. The clocktower is encased in scaffolding for restoration work. Some of the retaining walls supporting the Pavilion terrace are up to 7.6 metres (25 feet) deep.|
|Looking up at the house and its terraces from the Broad Walk.|
The dressing room on the upstairs floor of the Swiss Cottage, outfitted with a cane-seated couch, a wardrobe, an dressing tables.
|A display of some of the royal children's objets d'art in the sitting room. This room was originally used to house the children's museum before their collection outgrew the available space and a dedicated museum building was constructed (see below).|
|A display cabinet containing one of the sets of porcelain dishware used by the royal children when playing house.|
|A large stuffed bird of prey in a glass case sits atop a display of sea shells. Other displays house additional specimens of birds, butterflies, and even a fox.|
|Tree-lined Swiss Cottage Road leading from the Swiss Cottage, museum, and gardens back to Osborne House. This road was one of many walking and riding paths built throughout Osborne, reflecting Victoria and Albert's passion for outdoor activity.|
|Visitors enter the walled garden through a doorway leading onto the recreated cross-path layout surrounding various garden beds. The garden features a number of plants associated with Victoria and Albert and laid out in a contemporary planting style.|
|The walled garden originally was used to grow food crops and fruit trees, though by the later years of Queen Victoria's life the emphasis was on growing flowers for display in Osborne House.|
|Inside one of the two lean-to glasshouses in the walled garden. Colourful temperate and tropical potted plants grow well in the warm, humid conditions inside.|
Bright sunshine basking the plants in the glasshouse.
|In addition to potted plants, some of which may be destined for the outdoors in spring, the glasshouses contain raised planters with large specimens, like South American philodendron and cascading ground cover, which are permanent residents.|
|A large mass of succulents on the right are permanently planted in the glasshouses, while smaller potted plants sit atop benches on the left, against the windows.|
|The Gothic-style lean-to glasshouses were installed in Osborne's walled garden in 1854 by the firm of Thomas Clark & Company of Birmingham. They resemble the formerly extensive glasshouses built for Prince Albert at Frogmore, Windsor in the 1840s.|
|Even in mid-October, the protection afforded by its high brick walls creates a warm micro-climate for the plants inside, many of which still possessed blooms despite the rain and cooler autumn temperatures generally.|
|Trained to grow up the inside wall of the garden as a lattice is a pear tree. Other such trained fruit trees in the garden include Lane's Prince Albert apples, Victoria plums, Brunswick figs, and lemons.|
|Large potted ornamental plants enjoy protection and warmth radiated from the sun-heated brick walls.|
|A side entrance to the walled garden.|
|A final look at the front of Osborne House, bathed in late afternoon sun, 15 October 2019.|