Victoria Albert's own mini-museum

5th April 1996 at 01:00
At a loss for the Easter break? Let The TES help with a two-page guide through the latest museum exhibitions - from a polished display of armoury in Leeds to Victoria and Albert's home-from-home on the Isle of Wight. If Queen Victoria had had her way, the present Osborne House would never have been built. In 1845 when she bought the original house on the Isle of Wight, she declared it "complete and snug", an ideal "place of one's own" in which to relax and raise a growing family.

Her ministers thought otherwise, deeming it vile and miserable, and too small for Privy Council affairs. So, in the interests of state a new wing was built, the old house demolished (the porch was rescued, and stands in the garden), further wings added, and the present rather forbidding neo-Italianate pile established.

While Osborne has all the trappings of a grand house lived in by a monarch, it is also full of features and curiosities that reflect Victoria and Albert's deep interest in the upbringing of their nine children.

There is, for example, the idiosyncratic Swiss Cottage, a timbered Tyrolean-style building half a mile from the house itself. Designed at Albert's behest, at two-thirds of ordinary dimensions, it provided a miniature home where the royal children learnt the basics of housekeeping, and took part in recitals and amateur dramatics.

Albert also encouraged them to collect objects - shells, geological specimens, stuffed animals and birds. This collection grew so much that a separate building had to be built nearby.

Each child had his or her own "allotment". Their miniature wheelbarrows, hoses and other tools can be seen in the nearby summerhouse. Ever practical, Albert bought their produce at commercial rates.

The children's presence is also strong in the house itself; pictures of them hang in several rooms. Of particular interest is the nursery suite with chairs specially made and initialled for each child. At age 6, the children would move down to the schoolroom (not open to the public) where Albert sometimes taught them himself.

The royal apartments and corridors, which have been left much as they were in Victoria's time, contain an astonishing array of pictures, statues, furniture and glass. But even here the personal intrudes: there's the private lift built for the elderly queen, Albert's own bath, and a pouch for his glasses hanging above the royal bed.

The biggest surprise is the Durbar ("reception") room, the state banqueting hall. The expensive gifts presented to Victoria at her jubilee by Indian nawabs (landowners) and others are housed here.

Osborne is popular with schools, so booking (which brings free entry) is essential. The house, run by English Heritage, has an education room, with television, video and slide facilities, replica Victorian costumes, and a collection of Victorian toys.

* Further information from the head custodian, Osborne House, East Cowes, Isle of Wight PO32 6JY, Tel: 01983 200022.

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