Osborne House may be the best known of the Isle of Wight’s stately homes, but the island was favoured by well-connected families long before the Victorians made it fashionable
Words Mark Rowe
Where was Queen Victoria most amused? The answer may lie on the Isle of Wight at Osborne House, the royal’s most southerly residence. Set among leafy grounds and veteran oaks and yews, Osborne was described by the queen as her “little paradise”, her bolthole from the busyness of London.
The queen had a life-long soft spot for the island, having visited twice as a child. Her Husband, Prince Albert, was equally smitten, to the extent he, perhaps over-excitedly, compared its location overlooking the Solent to a view of the Bay of Naples. He extended the Italianate theme by designing Osborne House – built between 1845 and 1851 – in the style of a Renaissance palazzo with the architect Thomas Cubitt, whose CV included the façade of Buckingham Palace.
Some palaces can be rather staid or pompous, but most visitors find Osborne House quite the opposite. The grandeur is undoubtedly there, with sumptuous state rooms and opulently furnished corridors adorned with items of antiquity. After all, this was where the queen, at the height of the British Empire, welcomed guests from across the world.
But it’s the personal details that may stay in the memory. Many items on display were gifts given by Victoria and Albert to each other. Perhaps most touching are the marble sculptures cast from moulds of plaster, of the arms, legs, feet, and hands of their many children.
The house is not without controversy, for after Prince Albert’s death in 1861, the queen retreated here permanently and formed a famously close friendship – to the great displeasure of the royal household – with her attendant Mohammed Abdul Karim (this was wonderfully dramatised in Stephen Frears’ comedy-drama Victoria & Abdul in 2017).
Victoria died here in 1901 and before burial at Windsor she was laid in state in the Dining Room, which today remains furnished with the original cut-glass chandeliers, satin curtains, and full-length mirrors.
The house’s grounds are delightful. Summer flowerbed displays thrive in the island’s Mediterranean microclimate, and you have every chance of spotting red squirrels among the ornamental evergreens.
Osborne House was a genuine family home and all of Victoria’s children spent some of their childhood here. Just behind the house is Swiss Cottage, a whopper of a ‘Wendy’ playhouse where the royal infants would play.
The grounds also take in the shoreline and visitors can inspect the bathing machine – which resembles a cross between a garden shed and a cowboy’s wagon – where Victoria got changed before she took to the water.
Well before Osborne House came along, discussion of what constituted the finest home on the Isle of Wight would generally have settled upon Grade I listed Appuldurcombe House, widely recognised in its heyday as a masterpiece of 18th-century English Baroque architecture. Sadly, the same could not be said today, as it has been reduced to a slightly surreal spectacle: a stately home version of the ruins of Fountains Abbey.
The approach to the house hardly foreshadows the startling view awaiting you. Capability Brown designed the 11 acres of pleasingly landscaped Grade II listed grounds with mature yew and oak trees and rolling lawns hemmed in by wrought-iron fences. Everything is harmonious and easy on the eye. Yet as the house morphs from silhouette to substance, you are greeted with the bare skeleton of once-grand rooms and wings now open to the elements.
Walk around to the front and you see the vestiges of how the building must once have looked, where the Grand Hall has been shored up against the weather. The impressive pediment surrounding the front entrance remains, but the vases and statues that once adorned it are long gone.
The tale of decay is long and sad. The house was built as the seat of the Worsley family, who came from gentry stock and made a fortune out of royal favour in Georgian times. Although Appuldurcombe’s superficial splendour held fast for 150 years, the rot set in even as the house was being built, for its ruinous cost stretched the family to the limit and heirs down the years eventually ran out of cash to pay for its completion.
By the Second World War, Appuldurcombe had fallen into disrepair. Accidental bombing by the Luftwaffe all but finished the place off. Complete collapse was only averted thanks to the intervention of an employee of the Ministry of Works, who had the post-war foresight to designate it an architectural ruin to be preserved by law.
The Worsley family fared little better than their old pile. In the late 18th century, the 7th Baronet Sir Richard Worsley was involved in an excruciating court case in which his young wife and heiress Seymour Fleming admitted to having 27 lovers. Fleming inspired a character of loose morals, Lady Teazle, in Richard Sheridan’s play School for Scandal in 1777.
Mottistone Manor on the south of the island, falls somewhere in between Osborne House and Appuldurcombe, being a restoration work in advanced progress. After a landslide in 1703, the house remained partially buried for more than 200 years and the restoration was led by the 1st Baron Mottistone, or ‘Galloping’ Jack Seely, who had ridden a war horse, Warrior, into battle during the First World War.
This is an extract, read the full feature in the August/September 2022 issue of Discover Britain, out on 8 July.