Monday, June 23, 2008

"I've been up to Osborne..."


“I’ve been up to Osborne, to look at the Queen …”

I don’t quite know why it has taken me three weeks to get myself up to Osborne House. You’ld expect someone with my preoccupation with all things Victorian to have headed up there, to wallow in the atmosphere of Queen Victoria’s ‘holiday home’, on day one. Perhaps it was just that, on the map, it looks such a long way away. Right on the other side of the island from the Hermitage. I have to keep reminding myself that you can, for heaven’s sake, walk a centimetre of the ordnance surveymap in 10 minutes, so on wheels … well, let’s just say that there’s not much in the Isle of Wight that’s more than half-an-hour’s drive from here.

So, this morning I set out in breezeless sunshine, via large roads and small, towards Wootton and East Cowes, and, in 25 minutes, I was in the carpark at Osborne House. I negotiated the vast shop, paid my eight pounds (senior citizen discount is rather meagre) and sallied forth.

I don’t know quite what I’d expected, but what I got wasn’t quite it. I suppose one expects a Queen to live in a palace, even when she’s having a weekender, and Osborne House is not a palace. On the outside it’s a rather plain building. It has a couple of towers and a bit of a portico, and a very jolly hog and hound (above) guarding the entrance I went in, but mostly it’s like a nice, unpretentious (though decidedly large) gentleman’s country mansion. Which, I suppose, is exactly what it was. Anyway, perched up there above its pretty, unextravagant gardens and its wide prairies, it has very appealing no-royal-nonsense air.

Inside is something different. Inside is a sort of a mish-mash. A number of key rooms – such as the surprisingly small personal royal chambers, the nurseries, and the dining and adjourning rooms – have been preserved more or less as they might have been in Victoria’s days, but a considerable part of the part which visitors are allowed to see seems to consist of corridors and virtually wasted spaces, areas which have little or none of the atmosphere of what appears to be the small percentage of the house-space in which Victoria, Albert and their children actually and actively lived.
Most of these ‘other’ spaces are crammed full of art: paintings and statuary, which I gather belong to the house, and nowadays are the property of the present Queen. I would suggest, ma’am, that you investigate the uses of ebay There are endless truly poor pictures by what must have been exceptionally minor German artists, some betterish ones by undoubtedly minor British artists, plus a whole gallery of mediocre portraits of Indian dignitaries .. it was quite a relief to come upon a Winterthaler, even if it was only a copy. The statuary was less awful, but – oh, dear! -- there was so much of it! Laocoon shouldering out Silenus and an amazingly twee version of Albert (I assume) pretending to be an ancient Greek warrior. Try ‘Cash in the Attic’, ma’am. Do!
But it’s not just the artwork. I suppose being royal doesn’t give you automatic good taste. Prince Albert seems to have recognised that, and he took advice on the interiors of the ‘public’ rooms of the house. Unfortunately, no-one seems to have advised him who best to take advice from. The fussy design of his German decorator is all at odds with the place’s staunch exterior. And what to say about the ‘Durbar Room’, an Indianish monstrosity added in later days? … who could ever feel ‘at home’ in that?

You can’t take photos inside (perhaps just as well), so I shall put u here instead a picture of the terrace gardens, taken from the upstairs window.

Just as the personal rooms of the house give you that ‘real’ feeling that these others do not, so too does the ‘Swiss Cottage’ which is … wait for it! … a reproduction chalet, fretwork and all, set in the trees at the far end of the property. This was built originally for the royal children to play ‘escape to the country’ in, but eventually it became a sort of Petit Trianon for the whole family. It has quite the air of a mountain hut to it, although, of course, it’s been reorganised for modern consumption (room had to be made for a tearoom, after all). It also has a splendid vegetable garden, and round the corner you can gaze at (outside only) the Queen’s bathing machine, and the princelings’ toy battleground.

I walked round each part of the grounds, marvelling that they felt so natural. No topiary, no Greek nudes gazing from niches, the grounds of Osborne – outside the delightful and tasteful house gardens -- are simple and genuine ‘country’. There are man-made things of interest to see, though. A splendid example of an 1850s icehouse (no refrigerators, and the Queen had her ice imported from America), and a walled garden, left over from Osborne House’s predecessor but, alas, shorn of its ancient glasshouses (demolished in the 1970s!). Rather less agreeably, I came upon two unhappy white horses in a paddock. Healthy and fully-shod, I imagine they are understudies to those who pull the trap which ferries visitors (at 2.50 a head) the few hundred metres from the car-park to the house. Alas, in a building where there seem to be as many indoor and outdoor staff today as there must have been servants in Victoria’s day, no-one seemed to be deputed to look after these poor fellows who were suffering horribly from flies and quivering with distress.

Altogether, I spent over two hours around Albert and Victoria’s house and gardens. And, driving home, I thought about what I had seen. And I decided they were right and I was wrong. It was their house, and they loved it. It was full of their things (so full, indeed, with the collections of nine children, that a museum chalet had to be built!) and they were happy amongst them. And that’s what you go to Osborne to see. Not a copperplate perfect-taste Palaces-and-Gardens set-up. But a home, on which real and interesting people’s personalities have rubbed off.

So, I mightn’t have seen the Queen, but I saw a little reflection of her. She and her husband creep up in front of you, here, as human beings rather than monarchs.
And I’m sure that, had she been around today, she’d have had something done about the white horses.

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