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Queen Victoria’s Gothic Ruin at Frogmore

Like other small and private buildings that exist in the grounds of Queen Victoria’s residences, such as the Garden Cottage at Balmoral, each is unique, enabling us to gain a personal glimpse into the Queen’s domestic world, her daily pursuits and interests. Another such building is the Gothic Ruin at Frogmore, used by Queen Victoria, but which in contrast to the others, was not in fact built by her. It predated her birth by around thirty years, but it was a building which provided a tangible, living link to the Queen’s Georgian ancestry.

The Gothic Ruin was one such folly which was erected in the grounds of Frogmore in the 1790s, following the purchase of Frogmore Farm and then the estate of Great Frogmore in September 1792. The gardens at Frogmore were particularly loved by Queen Charlotte and provided a peaceful background for recreation and ‘botanizing’, with her daughters, in a kind of English echo of Marie Antoinette’s personal retreat of the Petit Trianon. The Ruin was designed by the architect James Wyatt, who was aided by the Queen’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who probably helped decorate the exquisite upper room of Queen Charlotte’s Cottage at Kew, resplendent with rich floral garlands, forming a floating pergola over the Gothic ceiling. Further evidence of Princess Elizabeth’s remarkable artistry may be seen in the Cross Gallery at Frogmore House, featuring paper cut-outs and flower panels, dating also from the 1790s; her decoration of the Chinoiserie rooms at Frogmore was captured in Pyne’s Royal Residences but sadly do not survive today. Similarities with a type of ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’ could also be seen, given the fact that the building of Horace Walpole’s Gothic Revival villa was begun in the late 1740s and was in itself, highly iconic.

Princess Elizabeth designed several Gothic follies for the gardens at Frogmore, including ‘moss huts, Gothic ruins and octagonal temples’ (Flora Fraser, Princesses, Pg 144, 2004). The ‘octagonal temple’ referred to a Gothic Temple of Solitude, and the ‘huts’ were more precisely, a thatched Hermitage and a barn (or garden) ballroom; the aforementioned Gothic Ruin is the only one of these earlier buildings to survive today. Another hut, known as the ‘Swiss Seat’, is still to be found near the lake but instead was only erected much later, possibly in 1833. A series of engravings by Henry Edridge showing Queen Charlotte and her daughters at Frogmore in the early 19th century also features one of Princess Elizabeth, sat in repose by the lake, with what may perhaps be the Gothic Ruin in the background.

Wyatt had initially been supposed to design a ‘Gothic Cottage’ at Frogmore Farm, but this project was dropped when Great Frogmore was purchased instead, a neighbouring estate which was far more significant than just the farm.

The Gothic Ruin was later used by Queen Victoria as a place to take breakfast, or as a reading room (The Royal Collection, Frogmore House and the Royal Mausoleum, Pg 39, 2003). In taking breakfast at Frogmore, Queen Victoria was, in fact, continuing a pattern set by her paternal grandmother, Queen Charlotte, who had liked to spend the mornings at Frogmore, according to the diarist, Fanny Burney. When the Russian Tsarevich, the future Tsar Nicholas II, came to visit Queen Victoria at Windsor in the summer of 1894 – following his engagement to the Queen’s granddaughter, Princess Alix of Hesse – he also regularly noted in his diary, the practice of breakfasting at Frogmore, or driving there for morning tea or coffee, together with Princess Alix and the Queen (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, Pg 74-5, 1997). Interestingly, he also records returning for luncheon, presumably to the castle, in another echo of Queen Charlotte’s returning to Windsor Castle for dinner after spending the day at Frogmore.

The gardens at Frogmore, of course, acquired a deeper, more personal meaning for the Queen after the deaths of her mother, the Duchess of Kent and her beloved husband Prince Albert, as the Mausoleum of the Duchess of Kent was erected in the grounds of Frogmore on the site of Princess Elizabeth’s Gothic Temple of Solitude. The Royal Mausoleum which was built for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was completed in 1862. The Queen’s journal often details driving down to Frogmore or walking at Frogmore to the Royal Mausoleum; she also grew greatly fond of the gardens at Frogmore, possibly the beauty of nature in the gardens was blended with a personal emotion verging on the sacred. A pencil watercolour sketch was made by the Queen in 1865, autographed by her in her sketchbook, ‘Our Mausoleum, Frogmore, 1865’, words which might be seen to convey both sadness and peace. Later, she would erect a tent in the grounds near her Tea House at Frogmore and work outside, writing in 1867: ‘[In] this dear lovely garden, all is peace and quiet, and you only hear the hum of the bees, the singing of the birds…” (Ibid, Pg 6). The fact that the Queen used the Gothic Ruin for reading was also recreating something done by Queen Charlotte and her daughters – Queen Victoria’s paternal aunts – similarly, the Queen also painted and drew, as is evidenced by her surviving artwork; an echo perhaps of what Queen Charlotte and her daughters had once done, when Frogmore was something of an enclosed, female paradise.

The Gothic Ruin at Frogmore was covered by ivy, even in Queen Victoria’s reign, as photographs in the Royal Photograph Collection record. The Ruin’s interior is early Victorian in keeping with the Gothic style, although some aspects of the inner rooms were strikingly mock-Tudor. It has a panelled ceiling. Several watercolours exist of the building in the Royal Collection, where it is identified by a variety of similar names, including merely the ‘Ruin’ or even, the ‘Gothic’; most appropriately, it features as a pencil sketch in an album which belonged to Princess Elizabeth. It also features in an album of pictures belonging to the future Edward VII. The Princess Royal was photographed in the Gothic ‘Summer House’ at Frogmore as part of the official photographs for Her Royal Highness’s 21st birthday, in 1971.

The Gothic Ruin has never been opened to the public, but may be seen from the outside during the three charity days that Frogmore House and Gardens are open.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.