In its honey-coloured Italianate splendour, Osborne looks out across terraced gardens and down through a tree-edged shallow valley to its own private beach below. Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, likened the view to that of the Bay of Naples when he decided to build this summer residence at East Cowes for his family and it was here that he taught all of their children to swim. Visitors to Osborne House can now for the first time in years walk on this private beach and image the fun this close, loving family would have had here growing up.
Albert loved designing things and had a floating ‘swimming pool’ made that was moored off shore for the royal princes and princesses to learn to swim in safety. A model of it can be seen in the first room you enter in the house, which has informative hanging banners and exhibits telling the story of Osborne from Albert’s building project to the present day.
From their home high above the beach their nine children must have looked out of their nurseries on the second floor each day to see if the weather was suitable for bathing. It is here that you can see their playroom, dining room and bedrooms along with marble models of their hands and feet.
Below on the first floor are Victoria and Albert’s bedrooms, bathrooms, dressing rooms, studies and private sitting room looking as if the couple have just walked out. Queen Victoria kept Albert's rooms as they were when he died in 1861 and used to lay out his clothes every day. These rooms were all sealed off after her death in 1901 and not opened again until 1954 - you can see the enormous black and gold gates that shut their memories away for over fifty years.
Albert had an illuminating fresco painted in his private bathroom of Hercules being enslaved to Omphale that may shed light on how he felt as the queen’s consort! Another enormous fresco fills the wall of the stairwell featuring Neptune surrendering the sea to Britannia, painted by William Dice in 1847, which is really quite something to behold.
Paintings, statues and ornaments fill the rooms of Osborne House and drip from the walls that boast stunning gold leaf embellishment to their ornate plasterwork ceilings. The best of these are on the ground floor where visitors would have been entertained such as the Council Room where Victoria received members of the Privy Council and the smaller Audience Room with its astounding chandelier of glass arum lilies.
Downstairs in the basement the kitchens are long gone but you can see the Table Deckers’ Room and the Servery from whence the food would be taken to the diners upstairs, including the place setting guides and copies of the original plates Victoria used after Albert’s death. The guide here will tell you that Queen Victoria was a very fast eater and once she had finished each course everyone else had to stop eating too!
Upstairs again and the plush pink and red dining room looks down on that fab view of the beach and looking down on you is a host of enormous family portraits. You then walk through to the sumptuous drawing room with its glowing yellow upholstery and more works of art including marble statues and amazing gifts from her subjects such as tables inlaid with intricate mosaics. This L Shaped room also houses the enormous marble billiard table and the family’s grand piano. Don’t miss the Horn Room just near here too – a really quirky room that you can only look in on where most of the furniture and fittings are made from deer antlers.
You are ‘guided’ through the house and the last port of call is the newer wing housing the Durbar Room that was added as a banqueting hall in 1890/91. A long corridor full of portraits of her Indian ‘subjects’ takes you to this ornately embellished Indian-themed hall that has a deeply coffered ceiling made of intricately moulded plaster. With a white peacock above the fireplace and symbols of India such as Ganesh, the elephant god of good fortune it’s a bit like being inside a giant inside out wedding cake.
Laid out before you as you exit the house are the Italian style terrace gardens with their traditional planting, statues and pathways and that lovely view of the sea again. Behind the house is the walled garden, which you shouldn’t miss as it is quite astounding, especially in the summer time.
Albert also had a Swiss Cottage built in the grounds for the children where they could learn housekeeping, cooking and gardening. Each would have had a plot of the garden and these are still cultivated with fruit and vegetables and the children would have learned about the world from the amazing museum full of natural history exhibits next to the cottage. This is another 15 minute walk from the main house but there is a courtesy bus.
If you want to know anything about the house you can ask one of the very helpful guides: they are very knowledgeable and if one person hasn’t got the answer they will find someone who does. In the gardens you can ask one of the gardeners if you want information too – they are all very approachable and a mine of information. There are also various guides on sale in the admission centre and tours of the house are available in high season.
You can take lunch in the waiter-service gourmet Terrace Restaurant overlooking the gardens and the the sea or there are self service cafes in the entrance hall and on the ground floor of the Swiss Cottage, which both have outdoor seating areas.