Amazing Interiors: Osborne House

Osborne House - © English Heritage

Our search for the most beautiful interiors in the UK continues with a visit to Queen Victoria’s holiday retreat on the Isle of Wight, the magnificent Osborne House…

By Marian Trudgill

Who doesn’t love a nice relaxing holiday by the seaside? Certainly not Queen Victoria, which is why in 1845, she decided to buy a whacking great holiday home on the Isle of Wight - although Osborne House was rather less ‘British beach hut’ and rather more ‘gobsmacking Italianate palace’. Here’s our guide to the sumptuous, even exotic, interiors of Victoria's home by the sea…


‘Albert the Creator’

On visiting the Osborne estate in 1844, Queen Victoria declared: “It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot!” With picturesque views stretching across the Solent, and boasting its very own private beach, it's easy to see why. Purchased from Lady Isabella Blachford for just shy of £28,000 Osborne House offered the royal family a retreat from the pressures of royal life.
Queen Victoria's Bedroom - © English Heritage
Queen Victoria's sitting room - © English Heritage

The original house was a comparatively modest three-storey Georgian affair. However, as well as being a family getaway, Osborne was also where Victoria would receive countless members of Parliament and a host of foreign dignitaries. Realising that the house was a little on the small side for the royal requirements, Victoria and her husband Albert soon set about building a replacement, complete with impressive state rooms and just as stately corridors and staircases, and furnishing them with a fine collection of paintings and statues from across Europe. The new Osborne House, with its imposing belvedere towers and terraces, was designed in the Italianate style by Prince Albert and London architect Thomas Cubitt. In fact, Osborne House is where Albert really got to make his mark, and he was dubbed (though not literally dubbed) 'Albert the Creator' by the Queen. The style employed by Albert actually became known as 'the Osborne style' and influenced architecture throughout the Empire.

Bottom of the grand staircase - © Derek Voller


Osborne grandeur

The new Osborne House was built between 1845 and 1851.The Grand Corridor linked the household and main wings with the royal family's private apartments, and is where Albert indulged his passion for the Italian Renaissance. More sculpture gallery than corridor, the walls boast plaster copies of friezes from the Parthenon, as well as classical sculptures by a selection of artists from the Victorian era. The Grand Corridor was also used by Victoria as a place for exercise when the weather was being particularly British. The grand staircase, meanwhile, showcases a huge fresco of Neptune Resigning the Empire of the Seas to Britannia, as well as a life-size statue of Albert – apparently the man himself considered it to be 'too undressed' to deserve a place in one of the rooms!
Grand staircase with 'Neptune Resigning the Empire of the Seas to Britannia' - © English Heritage

The Drawing Room is beautifully decorated, and has been restored to its 1890s appearance, complete with striking yellow damask satin furniture and curtains, marbled columns and Aubusson carpet. The room also features a number of impressive cut-glass chandeliers by Osler's of Birmingham, which were later electrified. At the far end of the Drawing Room is a piano, which is decorated with miniatures of paintings by the Old Masters. This room was often used for music recitals.

Drawing room - © English Heritage


An Indian Affair

And now for the real piece de resistance – the awe-inspiring Durbar Wing. As Empress of India, Queen Victoria expressed an increasing interest in the country and its culture. So much so that in 1847 she appointed two Indian servants, one of whom was the Indian Muslim, Abdul Karim.
Portrait of Mohammed Abdul Karim, by Rudolf Swoboda (Royal Collection)

Abdul's subsequent rise from humble servant to tutor and confidante of the Queen caused a great deal of controversy among the family and household. Affectionately referred to as her 'Munshi', or teacher, Abdul taught the Queen Hindi. The controversial relationship was the subject of the recent film, Victoria and Abdul, which was filmed at Osborne. In 1890, Queen Victoria commissioned the creation of the Durbar Wing, consisting of the Durbar Corridor with its range of striking Indian portraits by Rudolf Swoboda, and the stunning Durbar Room, which was used for many different forms of entertainment, from large ceremonial feasts to theatrical displays. From its elaborate coffered ceilings and plaster and carton pierre coverings (a 19th-century papier mache), to its statement peacock chimney piece, and a stunning collection of highly decorative 19th century Indian gifts and artefacts – including many intricately carved and engraved caskets, textiles and metalwork, not to mention a model Indian palace – the Durbar Room is a real celebration of Indian influences. The room was designed by Lockwood Kipling, the father of writer Rudyard, and decorated by one of the Punjab's leading architects of the time, Bhai Ram Singh.

The Durbar Room - © English Heritage

A royal portrait

The Osborne estate boasts many more points of interest, including the Swiss Cottage which Albert built for his nine children, almost a mile from the house (a work of genius in more ways than one), as well as Queen Victoria's personal lift, and her private bathing machine, which allowed her to enjoy larking about in the sea – all within strict Victorian limits, of course. All of these things help to paint a portrait of Victoria's life with her family, during a time of great social and technological change – not least of which was the introduction of electric lighting. Queen Victoria visited her beloved Osborne regularly for over 50 years and died there in 1901. It was later used as a naval college and a convalescent home for officers. The house is now in the care of English Heritage and is well worth a visit.
Portrait of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter


Plan your visit to Osborne House here.