Home is where the heart is

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert lavished love and attention on their children, and nothing shows this more than their holiday house on the Isle of Wight. Sean Coughlan pops in for a visit

You can see why Queen Victoria liked Osborne House so much. It may have been a royal residence, but there's something disarmingly homely about it.

You can imagine where the family might have put their Christmas tree.

At a time when Britain was building a global empire, its queen and her consort, Prince Albert, were busy building their own version of a private family home, beside the seaside on the Isle of Wight. Of course it's not exactly a three-bedroom semi with furniture from the 19th-century equivalent of Ikea. This was a big country house, built in the fashionable Italian style, with a 2,000-acre estate.

But you can see what Queen Victoria meant when she described Osborne as being "snug". It was almost as if the couple were deliberately trying to create their own slice of comfortable, provincial life. And if you already had Buckingham Palace as a place to stay in town, perhaps snugness would be a more attractive quality than high ceilings and gilt.

For the modern visitor, Osborne House says much more about Victorian everyday life, fashions, leisure and hobbies than you might expect from a royal showcase. And it also shows the stark differences between the wealthy residents and their below-stairs staff. While the rooms used by the royals and their guests are richly decorated and filled with vivid colours, once you take the staircase down below you enter grey corridors and relentlessly spartan rooms. You can also how these servants spent their time, using set squares and rulers to ensure that tables were laid correctly, with plates a specific distance apart.

Even if you visited Osborne House without knowing anything about Victoria and Albert, you'd soon recognise one of their chief interests. In the late 1840s and 1850s, when the house was being built, the Queen and Prince Consort were parents of a young family, and the house is crammed with images of their nine children. This was where the family relaxed, putting on plays, dressing up and celebrating birthdays. Prince Albert, far from the remote Victorian father, showed his children how to do somersaults, caught butterflies with them and gave magic lantern displays.

In the grounds there is a Swiss cottage, finished in 1854, and built as a house for the royal children. This cottage, which looks like a giant Alpine chalet, wasn't just somewhere for the children to play, it was intended by Prince Albert to be part of their education, where they could learn about cooking and housekeeping.

Around the cottage, Prince Albert, endlessly keen on self-improvement and scientific advance, wanted the children to develop their own market garden, where they could grow and sell produce.

There's an eclectic collection of historic and scientific items, collected by or given to the children from parts of the burgeoning empire. Now a mini-museum, it is a Victorian mix of stuffed animals, fossils, classical statues, Zulu shields and Canadian Indian artefacts.

The Victorians, as no previous generation, were fascinated by the idea of childhood. But when you look at the painstakingly creative surroundings designed for the royal children at Osborne, it's impossible to not also think about the extreme poverty that characterised life for so many less fortunate children during the Victorian era.

Visiting Osborne House is an illustration of the contradictions within Victorian society. You can see, particularly in Prince Albert's efforts, the reforming zeal for a better way of living, with beautiful gardens, scientific inquiry and model farms. Graham Bell visited to demonstrate his new invention of the telephone.

But in the same year that the royal children were given the Swiss cottage and were pushing monogrammed wheelbarrows around a play farm, Charles Dickens published Hard Times, detailing the grinding hardship of the industrial working classes.

Osborne House gives a very accessible impression of how wealthy Victorians lived. You can see where they dined, slept, listened to music, played billiards, how they furnished their rooms and enjoyed ornamental gardens.

You can also see the functional plainness of rooms such as the bathroom and shower.

There are parts of the house which are more intricate and ostentatious, such as the Indian-inspired Durbar Room, which was added later. But this type of public room, built long after Albert's death, is out of step with the less ornate and private style of much of the house.

Perhaps the most atmospheric room, and the most historically significant, is the queen's bedroom, where Victoria, surrounded by her family, died on January 22, 1901. In this rather unassuming room, not far from the suburban waters of the Solent, the Victorian era ended. At that moment, this quiet bedroom was at the epicentre of international attention, as news rippled out that the head of state of the world's most powerful nation had died.

Tel: 01983 200022. Adults pound;8.95, concessions pound;6, children Pounds 4.50, discounts for families and groups

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