English Heritage celebrates the bicentenary of the births of both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with a new exhibition, Royal Presents at Osborne, focusing on the unique stories behind seven gifts exchanged by the royal couple.
Osborne itself was, of course, the Queen and Prince Consort’s supreme present as a private retreat, for themselves and the royal children. Its situation was ideal, within suitable yet easy distance of London, providing the privacy of an island home, so peculiar to their needs. The Queen wrote after visiting the house: ‘It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot – we have a charming beach quite to ourselves – we can walk anywhere without being followed or mobbed’ (cit., Michael Turner, Osborne House, 30).
The royal couple purchased the estate of some 342 acres, with the near-lying Baron Manor. The Queen was overjoyed with Osborne, writing in 1844 in her journal: ‘I am delighted with the house, all over which we went, and which is so complete and snug. The rooms are small but very nice. With some few alterations and additions for the children, it might be made an excellent house’ (cit., Ibid, 30).
In time, Osborne became synonymous with the celebration of royal birthdays. For much of her married life, from 1848 until the Prince’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria tended to celebrate her own birthday of 24 May at Osborne. Gifts were laid out on a special birthday table known as the ‘Present Table’, just as they had been in the Queen’s childhood. Several watercolours and photographs in the Royal Collection record Queen Victoria’s birthday table, such as those set up in the Horn Room at Osborne House, in aquarelles by J. Nash in 1848 and 1849 respectively. The Queen’s birthday in 1849 was, as she recorded in her journal: ‘Welcomed in by the tender love and affection of my dearest Albert, whose care of me and unselfishness, seem yearly to increase’ (cit., HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, Victoria and Albert, A Family Life at Osborne House, 127). Among these presents was a fine Winterhalter portrait of three of the royal children, Princess Louise with Prince Arthur and Prince Leopold, a gift from Prince Albert to the Queen for her birthday in 1856; it features in the new exhibition at Osborne.
The idea of a ‘Present Table’ was not restricted to a royal birthday; Nash also painted Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1845, showing the tables around the tree laden with presents. Queen Victoria wrote: ‘at 6 Albert took me into the Blue Closet, where as usual my frosted tree stood & my presents were all arranged on a table’ (cit., Louise Cooling, A Royal Christmas, 27).
Similarly, James Roberts’s shimmering watercolours of the Christmas trees of the Duchess of Kent and the royal children at Windsor Castle in 1850, for example, show the tables again full of gifts beneath the flickering branches. Roberts painted the Queen’s birthday table at Osborne in 1854, showing the room full of presents. Later examples of present tables include the photographs of the Christmas trees in the Durbar Room at Osborne House, 1896-7, with gifts for the Royal Household.
The celebration of the Queen’s birthday at Osborne usually started the day before, when Prince Albert checked that everything was ready, before ‘the Birthday’ was fetched, as the whole ensemble of presents, decorations and flowers became known (HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, 120). The day began with music, played for the Queen on the terrace beneath the bedroom window. Queen Victoria would rise, dress in summery attire and be greeted by the idyllic pageant of her own children, waiting for her at the foot of the stairs, with nosegays of fresh flowers, dressed in either muslins or sailor suits. A birthday table was erected in the Council Room at Osborne in 1850, after which one special room was officially designated the ‘Present Room’, located on the first floor in one of the spare rooms of the main wing (Turner, 30). Breakfast followed after the ‘present tables’, a birthday equivalent perhaps, of the ‘Bescherung’, the exchange of gifts on Christmas Eve at Windsor, during the Prince’s lifetime. Both were traditional German customs.
On Prince Albert’s birthday, the royal children would assemble outside his Dressing Room, before pulling him down to the ‘Present Room’. The band generally played his Christmas Hymn under their windows, when he woke. On one occasion, the little Princesses Helena and Louise stood in front of the presents ‘dressed as cherubs in blue and pink crape, with little wings, and wreaths of roses and forget-me-nots in their hair. They looked very sweet, holding up a card on which was inscribed “All blessing and happiness” (cit., HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, 120). For Prince Albert’s birthday in 1852, the Queen presented him with a large painting by Winterhalter, entitled Florinda, a lavish display of female nudes, which the Queen pronounced ‘splendid and delightful’ (cit., Ibid, 122). If this was intended as an ‘erotic’ gift, it is an interesting choice. Famously, Prince Albert’s favourite image of the Queen was the so-called ‘erotic’ painting, which shows Victoria with her hair loosened and much of her graceful neck exposed, whilst she wears what is probably, the locket containing Albert’s hair, which had been a present to her. Incidentally, the Queen hung up Florinda in her own sitting room (Ibid, 123).
Among the royal birthday presents displayed in the new exhibition at Osborne is an exquisite life-size statue by Mary Thornycroft of the Queen and Prince’s second daughter, Princess Alice as ‘Spring’, stood holding a flower. It was a gift to the Queen from Prince Albert in 1845, when Princess Alice was two-years-old. It is a fitting tribute when we remember that the royal children performed a tableau years later at Windsor Castle to mark the ‘Four Seasons’ on the fourteenth wedding anniversary of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1854 when the Prince of Wales was memorably dressed as the part of ‘Winter’. Importantly, Princess Alice played ‘the Spring, scattering flowers, and reciting verses, which were taken from Thomson’s Seasons; she moved gracefully, and spoke in a distinct and pleasing manner with excellent modulation, and a tone of voice sweet and penetrating like that of the Queen’ (cit., Bunsen’s Life, ii. 328, quoted in Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 9).
Princess Alice celebrated her birthday at Osborne in 1848 and was given amongst other gifts such as jewellery, the gift of a lamb from the Corporation of Newport, for her fifth birthday. The Queen wrote that it was ‘A live little lamb all decked out with ribbons… We had it tamed for her by Toward’s daughter. It is a sweet, gentle little thing and enchanted Alice and all the children’ (cit., Turner, 30). The painter Thomas Sidney Cooper painted the lamb at Barton Farm and gave the picture to Princess Alice as his own late birthday gift (Ibid, 30).
Lady Lyttleton, who supervised the royal children wrote of the pet lamb, somewhat cautiously: ‘One present I think we shall all wish to live father off: a live lamb, all over pink ribbons and bells. He is already the greatest pet, as one may suppose. Princess Alice’s pet lamb is the cause of many tears. He will not take to his mistress, but runs away lustily, and will soon butt at her, though she is most coaxy, and said to him in her sweetest tones, after kissing his nose often, “Milly, dear Milly! Do you like me?”’ (cit., Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 6).
Later on, Princess Alice’s children in Darmstadt assembled a veritable menagerie of their own, as well as the more usual presents for princesses, naturally expected to ride. Alice’s second daughter, Princess Elisabeth ‘Ella’ of Hesse, received a grey pony from Windsor, as a present from her grandmother, Queen Victoria (Christopher Warwick, Ella: Princess, Saint & Martyr, 40). Among the huge amount of animals, some of which were arguably pets for royal children, numbered a baby wild boar and a fox, alongside Alice’s own bull terrier, ‘Boxer’. Alice’s children also owned a pet lamb, whom Princess Elisabeth ‘Ella’ named ‘Milly’, after the one which Alice had received as a child at Osborne (Warwick, 39). The lamb grew up and was pulled by ‘Ella’ by a string harnessed at its neck, a questionable lead for the unfortunate animal.
Other gifts exhibited at Osborne for the bicentenary include, of course, paintings. One of these is entitled The Grandmother’s Birthday, given to the Queen by the Prince Consort in 1857. Another painting shows Maurice, the royal couple’s beloved St Bernard dog, whom they acquired in 1859. Osborne contains many examples of the Queen and Prince’s love of dogs, including notably, the sculpture on the terrace, showing Prince Albert’s treasured dog, Eos, who followed the Prince on his marriage to England from Coburg. Decorative items from the Prince to the Queen include a vase and stand and a spectacular pair of candelabra.
Inevitably, Osborne inspired art of its own. Prince Albert was given a set of studs made from Osborne pebbles by Kitching & Abud, for Christmas, 1845 (Charlotte Gere, Victoria and Albert: Love and art: Queen Victoria’s personal jewellery, 13).
Movingly, the last of the Queen’s ‘present tables’ at Osborne was captured as a watercolour by Roberts, in 1861. The room must have been particularly lavish because it is literally overflowing with floral wreaths, sprays and bouquets. On this birthday, Queen Victoria wrote in her journal that she had received a portrait of the Duchess of Kent – who had died on 16 March 1861 – a landscape painting and various things from the children, which they had embroidered, painted, or sketched (HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, 136).
Many gifts exchanged between the royal couple are already permanently displayed in the rooms at Osborne. The most poignant of these is surely the exquisite sculpture group Venus and Cupid, or Innocence in Danger, by Edward Muller, to be seen in the Grand Corridor. This was the birthday present intended for Prince Albert from Queen Victoria which he was destined never to receive. It was conceived as a present for the Prince’s birthday on 26 August 1862. He, of course, died at Windsor Castle on 14 December 1861. It remains as a touching gift from a Queen to her beloved consort, completed for a birthday he never saw.
After Prince Albert’s death, the Queen was persuaded to go to Osborne, a shattered widow, in deepest mourning. At Osborne, she wrote in January 1862: ‘The whole house seems to have lost its Light, its very soul’ (cit., HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, 164). It must have been an excruciating mix of comfort and agony for the Queen and a black contrast to all the birthdays.
Osborne House also may have been viewed by the Queen as something of a private gift to her from Prince Albert, as well as it being a gift they shared with their children. She had loved it as his creation, just as she would go on to love Balmoral. She recorded: ‘I get fonder and fonder of it [Osborne], one is so quiet here, and everything is of interest, it being so completely my beloved one’s creation’ (cit., Ibid, 117).