Queen Victoria’s summer residence reflects her husband’s towering ambition

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Exactly a week before the late Queen died, I stood at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, studying the bed in which Queen Victoria died on January 22, 1901. The island had hosted happy holidays in youth from Victoria and later, with the coming of the railways, travel to it became simple. It was possible for her and Prince Albert to spend a large part of the year there. Some believe that Osborne was his favorite residence; but then also, allegedly, was Balmoral.

Osborne and Balmoral had an aesthetic connection, as well as a familial one. Albert, with technical assistance from London architect and builder Thomas Cubitt, designed Osborne; and after buying Balmoral and deciding that the Highland Castle was too small, the Prince commissioned a local architect, William Smith, Superintendent of Works at Aberdeen, to build a new, larger one. Albert found Smith’s design simple and added largely ornamental alterations, including turrets (which give the castle a Central European rather than a Scottish baronial appearance) and window detailing. Osborne, on the other hand, was more the work of Albert.

Approaching Osborne on foot from the far parking lot, one is confronted with a grand Italianate tailoring, accentuated by the two campanile-like towers (of unequal height) that punctuate the end of its main wing. It is a style that has moved away from the regularity and symmetry so often associated with Georgian work.

The house – and it was specifically built as a private home, not a royal palace – follows Cubitt’s Belgravia construction method: brick covered in stucco to imitate stone. The royal apartments were in what was called the pavilion, but extending to the south-west of this square building is the main wing, where guests were housed and where the functions of state which were to be performed were exercised. At right angles to this wing is a large hallway filled today with Imperial and Victorian memorabilia, and at the end of this, forming the third side of a rectangle, is the household wing.

English Heritage has run Osborne for almost 40 years and until 2000 the Main and Household wings served as a convalescent home for officers. The pavilion has been open to the public since 1904, as a Queen Victoria Memorial Museum. Edward VII had no affection for the place and ceded it to the nation shortly after his mother’s death, when it became a naval academy. In 1955 the first floor apartments of the house were opened to the public and the second floor was not opened until 1989. English Heritage have done a good job of restoring the fabric of the interior to remove all traces of its previous institutional use, and the contents of the public spaces also appear authentic.

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