Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought Osborne House in October 1845 as a place where they could escape from the stresses of court life and it soon became a favourite holiday retreat where the royal couple liked to celebrate their birthdays.
Situated on the Isle of Wight, the original three-storey Georgian house was owned by Lady Isabella Blachford, however the royal couple were quick to realise the house was too small for their needs. Prince Albert and Thomas Cubitt, a London architect, began designing a house in the Italian Renaissance style, featuring two belvedere towers, and construction started in 1845 after the demolition of the old house.
The new house was divided into four linked wings arranged around two courtyards. The first wing, known as the Pavilion, was where the principal apartments, including the Billiard Room, the Queen’s Dining Room, and the Drawing Room were situated on the ground floor. The Pavilion also housed Victoria and Albert’s private apartments, including the Prince’s Dressing Room, the Queen’s Sitting Room, the Queen’s Bedroom, and the children’s nurseries, on the first floor.
The second wing, known as the household wing, was used by senior royals for accommodation and where the main audience rooms were located. The third wing, known as the main wing, was used by the royal children and guests. The only part of the old house that was left intact was the front porch, now the entrance to the walled garden, and the stables which were later enlarged.
The fourth wing, the Durbar Wing, completed in 1892, maintained the Italianate style of the rest of the house, however it had a more Indian flavour to reflect Queen Victoria’s status as Empress of India. The Durbar Room was designed by Lockwood Kipling, the father of the author Rudyard Kipling, who was director of the Mayo School of Art in Lahore, India. The first floor of the Durbar wing also contained a private suite exclusively for the use of Princess Beatrice, the youngest daughter, and her family.
The terraced gardens originally covered 2,000 acres and were designed by Prince Albert to reflect the beautiful terraces he had seen in the Bay of Naples. Many of the trees lining the walks were planted by the prince and his children, while the gardens blossomed with magnolias, rhododendrons and azaleas. Osborne is also home to the original myrtle bush given to Queen Victoria by Prince Albert’s grandmother and it has become customary for royal brides to include a cutting in their bouquets.
The gardens also contain the Swiss Cottage, an Alpine-style chalet, where the royal children were taught practical skills such as cooking and gardening. The cottage, finished in 1854, was built with timber and was decorated with German proverbs and rustic carvings. The royal children grew fruit and vegetables in the gardens around the cottage and learn how to prepare them in the fully equipped kitchen. The royal children also learned to make butter, cream and cheese in the newly discovered dairy room which has been hidden behind a sealed doorway for years. The cottage has been restored and has been open to the public since 2014.
After Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, Edward VII handed Osborne House over to the nation, however he ordered the private rooms of his parents to be sealed. The stables were used as a junior officer training college for the Royal Navy until April 1921, where students included Queen Victoria’s great-grandsons, Edward VIII, George VI, and their younger brother, George, Duke of Kent. During World War I, the secondary wings of Osborne House were used as an officers’ convalescent home, known as the King Edward VII Retirement Home for Officers, and continued to be used by retired officers of the British Armed Services until the late 1990s.
Today, Osborne House is cared for by English Heritage and is open to the public as an historic tourist attraction. The private royal apartments were opened with the permission of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 and many of the other rooms have since been restored to their former glory. The English Heritage has instigated a new Victoria Trail where tourists can follow in the footsteps of the sovereign.
Osborne House was also used as a filmset for the first time for Victoria & Abdul which was released in September 2017. The film tells the story of the queen’s remarkable friendship with her Indian servant, Abdul Karim, which only came to light when his diaries were discovered. Costumes from the film, starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, were put on display for a limited time in the Durbar Room.