At Osborne House, the beloved family retreat of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on the Isle of Wight, is a private beach, unlike any other in British history. It is a royal beach, reserved solely for the use of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family. English Heritage opened it for the first time to the public in 2012, to show another different side to Queen Victoria, as a mother and royal wife, to straddle the two extremes of her life as either the young, petulant princess at Kensington Palace, or the ‘Widow of Windsor’, who never abandoned her mourning for the husband she had loved. This could also be seen to have been reinforced by the painting ‘Osborne, 1865’ (also called ‘Sorrow’) by Sir Edwin Landseer, which shows the Queen reading letters on horseback, with Osborne in the distance. Queen Victoria is shown on the pathway which led from the gardens out down towards the beach. However, Victoria as solely the widow is doing Victoria the wife a great injustice; pages of her journal breathe with life and pleasure, delighting in her family and her love for Prince Albert. It makes sense that the mourning was equal to the happiness she had enjoyed.
The intimacy of the location and its exclusivity, mean that this beach offers a uniquely personal insight into the private life of the Queen and her family and their activities whilst at Osborne. The beach also symbolises the very definite divide between the public and the personal in the life of the monarch. As well as being the place where the Royal Family could arrive and depart privately, it was also where dignitaries visiting Osborne could embark and disembark. Today you get a sense of this because massive ships crossing the Solent can be glimpsed from the beach. Tsar Nicholas II visited Edward VII for Regatta Week in 1909, coming to Cowes in the Russian yacht Standart, with Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna – Queen Victoria’s granddaughter – and the imperial children. Amongst the family members that gathered around the dying Queen Victoria at Osborne in 1901, was also her German grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who travelled to East Cowes to be at her bedside.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert acquired Osborne in 1845; the Queen’s birthday was celebrated at Osborne from 1848 onwards. There are numerous references in the Queen’s journal to walking or driving down to the beach at Osborne; an information plaque in one corner of the gardens at the entrance to the beach, illustrates the fact that Queen Victoria painted her six eldest children, the Princess Royal, the Prince of Wales, Princess Alice, Prince Alfred, Princess Helena and Princess Louise in that very spot in 1850, which looks much the same today. When Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Alix of Hesse was at Osborne with Queen Victoria in 1894, following her engagement to Tsarevich Nicholas, she mentions driving down to the beach at Osborne pulled by two ponies with her cousin, Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein. Touchingly, this meant revisiting the same beach where Queen Victoria had included her mother, Princess Alice, in the watercolour of 1850.
Prince Albert greatly admired the Solent, which reminded him of the Bay of Naples. In this, Queen Victoria also agreed, writing in the heat of the summer of 1852 of the “calm deep blue sea… all quite Italian” (Michael Turner, Osborne House, Pg 32, 1989). Indeed, the new Osborne House – rebuilt under Prince Albert’s direction in collaboration with the London building contractor Thomas Cubitt – was completely in the Italianate style, with a Clock Tower and Flag Tower as its campanile. He encouraged the Royal Family to spend as much time outdoors as possible; so we read of the Queen painting watercolours or sketching in the grounds, writing under the trees and even breakfasting outside. There are even references to Prince Albert teaching his children how to catch butterflies at Osborne, in the Queen’s journal; on another occasion, he released balloons on the lawn (Ibid, Pg 36). The Queen referred to the beach in a trial visit prior to the purchase of Osborne in 1845: “It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot – we have a charming beach quite to ourselves…” (Ibid, Pg 30). In this, we surely read the longing for personal space and private family life, in a country retreat far from London, a place “of one’s own”, as Queen Victoria herself wrote.
The Queen sometimes went to the beach to collect shells with her children; in this, we sense the tremendous sentimental importance that Osborne had to her, which Balmoral would also share. This was reflected in the way that such objects became special, even sacred to her, because of where they came from. In the early 1840s, the penchant for having pebbles set in jewellery was becoming popular. Osborne provided the theme for ‘yachting jewels’ and also on one occasion, a pair of Osborne pebbles were made into stud earrings by the jewellers Kitching & Abud, for Prince Albert’s Christmas present to the Queen in 1845 (Charlotte Gere, Love and Art: Queen Victoria’s Personal Jewellery, Essays from a Study Day, Pg 13, 2010).
The Queen’s children played on the beach and used a tent which was set up for them whilst they spent time there. Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son, gave the Queen a watercolour of Osborne House and the Landing House on the beach, for her birthday in 1858.
Prince Albert seems to have devised a ‘swimming bath’ to help the children learn to swim at Osborne; the princesses were taught by a Frenchwoman, Eugene Loby (Turner, Pg 28, 1989). This seems to have survived because Princess Alix of Hesse mentions using the ‘swimming bath’ at Osborne when she was with the Queen in 1894 (Andrei Maylunas & Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, Pg 84, 1997).
The Queen had her own ‘bathing machine’ for reasons of modesty, which enabled her to be wheeled down to the beach on rails up to the water’s edge. The Queen first used it in 1847, writing: “Drove down to the beach with my maids and went into the bathing machine, where I undressed and bathed in the sea (for the first time in my life)… I thought it delightful till I put my head under water, when I thought I should be stifled…” (op. cit Turner, Pg 29). The machine was winched back onto the beach after she had used it. It has been in its present position since the 1950s.
The nearness to the sea was reinforced by the fact that the windows of Osborne looked out to sea. The Solent was visible from the balcony of the Queen’s Sitting Room, which we know because not only can we see this today, but the Queen mentioned on one occasion, the moonlight visible on the water from her Sitting Room when evening fell (Ibid, Pg 16). We also know that a striking aspect of the windows was the fact that they afforded views onto the distant Solent, because it was commented on by others, such as Lady Lyttelton, who wrote that they “must have seen far out to sea” (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 163, 2000) and the future Queen Mary, who liked the “large, white airy house with its great sheet-glass windows looking out to sea” (James Pope-Hennessy, Queen Mary, Pg 228, 1959).
Poignantly, after Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria built an alcove (exedra) on the beach at Osborne. It emphasised not only her widowed state but also a more creative form of solitude, painting. The Queen sketched or wrote letters here, whilst looking out to sea. The beautiful alcove has been magnificently restored, the blue and pink tiles now gleaming in full colour.
It was not difficult to imagine the Queen sat in this alcove, when I sat there on an October day in 2016, looking at the same view which she had painted and enjoyed. The beach was deserted because the house was closed, and I was staying in one of the two flats in Sovereign’s Gate at Osborne House, rented out as holiday accommodation by English Heritage. There was that rare sense of the privacy which the Queen must have known in her time; her bathing machine was locked up for the season. Walking back up from the beach in the evening, Osborne House came into view, as it would have done when Queen Victoria walked back with her children; at these moments history stands still. Queen Victoria felt somehow very much alive as if even now, she was writing away at her papers in her Sitting Room, impervious to time. Sometimes when a place is so redolent of an individual, it can appear as if they have only momentarily left it and are coming back soon. The beach is such a place – as if Queen Victoria and her children had simply gone home at the end of the day.
Queen Victoria died at Osborne House on 22 January 1901. The Queen’s body made the journey back over the Solent to Windsor, embarking not from the beach though, as a monarch’s death was no time for privacy, but a matter of state. On 1 February, the yacht Alberta set sail from Trinity Pier for Portsmouth, to the sounding of guns, as the Queen made her last voyage. In a touching analogy, her death at the end of a long reign was serenely compared to ‘a great liner going out to sea’ (Antonia Fraser, Love and Louis IV, Pg 378, 2006).