Osborne: A Royal Garden

Discover Queen Victoria's seaside retreat

English Heritage

The gardens at Osborne seen from the Upper TerraceOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought the Osborne estate in 1845, and built a new mansion there as an escape from court life in London and Windsor.   

The royal family took delight in their seaside home, celebrating many special occasions, including Victoria and Albert’s birthdays, there.

Queen Victoria and family at Osborne, 1898Original Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Victoria used Osborne for more than 50 years. She entertained kings, queens and ministers at the house as well as her own extensive family.    

Top Euro Bri E Hampshire I Of Wight Castles Osborne HouseLIFE Photo Collection

The garden at Osborne was mostly created by Prince Albert in the years around 1850. It remained largely unchanged through Victoria’s reign, apart from continued planting and the addition of more statues.

Statue of a lion at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Prince Albert gradually stocked the new terraces with statues cast from antique models by the new process of electroforming. 

Many of the statues included were readily available through supply catalogues, or were copies of originals, such as the Medici lions supplied in 1851.

The Lower Terrace at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

The design of the three terraces beside the house – known as the Pavilion, Upper and Lower terraces – was an essential part of Albert’s designed landscape.    

Terrace at Rosenau. (1865) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

These gardens were built to match the Italianate design of the house, and with direct references to Albert’s childhood garden at Schloss Rosenau, at Coburg in Germany.  

Osborne, - from the North East. The Residence of Her Majesty. Isle of Wight. (about 1866) by Frank Mason GoodThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The terraces were built and planted between 1848 and 1852 and remained mostly unchanged throughout Victoria’s reign. 

The Upper Terrace at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

In the summer of 1849, Queen Victoria wrote: ‘Our Terrace is completely finished now, I mean the part in front of our own house, where they have been working, ever since we came, & put up the large flower vase, which is filled with flowers ... 

... The paths also have all been fresh gravelled & it is impossible to see a prettier terrace.’

Summer bedding on the Osborne terracesOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Today, the summer bedding scheme for the terraces usually includes Victorian favourites, such as fuchsias and pelargoniums contrasted with gold, silver and variegated foliage plants.   

View of the Lower Terrace at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

The myrtle on the Lower Terrace continues to grow from a sprig which was given to Victoria by Albert’s grandmother in 1845. It is still used in royal wedding bouquets today, a tradition begun at the wedding of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter in 1858.

The Andromeda fountain at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

The construction of the fountain on the Lower Terrace was started in the early 1850s. In 1860 it was adapted with the addition of the ‘Andromeda’ fountain, originally made for the Great Exhibition in 1851. 

The Lower Fountain at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Beyond the terraces, the Lower Fountain sits at the head of the Broad Walk, which leads from the house towards the beach. It was constructed by 1850. Victoria noted that ‘The fountain looks very pretty now it is entirely full of water’.

The statue of the Boy and Swan at its centre was given to her as a birthday present by Prince Albert in 1851.

Victorian photo of Osborne HouseOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

The lawns surrounding Osborne House were the setting for tents for the rustic fêtes held each year from 1846 onwards for the estate workers to mark Prince Albert’s birthday. 

In 1890 tents were erected on the lawn for the visit of the Emperor of Germany.

The Pleasure Grounds in front of the house were one of the main sites at Osborne where memorial trees were planted. All members of the royal family joined in with the planting, including visiting European royalty and nobility.    

Trees were planted to mark family weddings and birthdays. These were typically conifers of many different types from all over the world.

The entrance to the Kitchen Garden at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Set within the Pleasure Grounds, the walled Kitchen Garden was retained from the 18th-century house that previously stood at Osborne.

In June 1846 Victoria wrote: ‘Went with [Albert] to the Kitchen Garden, which is in a great beauty, & full of pinks, & fruit trees, all covered with fruit. A great many of the fine plants Albert bought are also there.’

The Kitchen Garden at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

The Kitchen Garden was more or less abandoned from 1940 until 1999. In that year, Rupert Golby’s design was chosen for a new layout for the garden, part of an English Heritage initiative to introduce contemporary gardens at historic sites.

The garden uses plants from the Victorian period, including many with names associated with Victoria or Albert. There are arches of Victoria plum and climbing roses, and borders of espalier-trained apples, including Lane’s Prince Albert.    

Planting in the Kitchen Garden at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

The redesigned Kitchen Garden opened to the public in July 2000.

The gardens of the Swiss Cottage at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

In the 1850s Victoria and Albert gave the royal children an area of the gardens to manage themselves. Here in 1853–4 Prince Albert built the Swiss Cottage for them. 

The Swiss Cottage at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

The idea of the gardens goes back to Albert’s childhood in Coburg, where both he and his brother, Ernest, had their own gardens.

The children had identical plots arranged into beds where they tended fruit, vegetables and flowers. In 1855 Princess Alice wrote how she had been ‘digging in the garden’ at Swiss Cottage.  

The Swiss Cottage gardens at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

The under-gardener assessed the produce and if it was good enough, Albert would pay the market rate to the child who had grown it.    

Replicas of the royal children's painted barrows at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Prince Albert saw to it that his children were provided with the right equipment to be able to garden properly. This included scaled-down garden tools and painted wheelbarrows, initialled for each child in gold at an extra cost of 1 shilling.

Albert Barracks, the miniature fort at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

As a boy, Prince Albert used to play in mock forts at Coburg. It was probably his idea to build a toy earthwork, called Victoria Fort, in 1855, and the brick Albert Barracks in 1860, near the Swiss Cottage.    

The beach at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

The beach was a favourite place for the royal family. In March 1851 Victoria wrote in her diary: ‘it was delightful on the sea shore, so fresh and bright. The children in the greatest delight, picking up shells.’  

Here the children also learned to swim, in a ‘swimming bath’ apparently devised by Prince Albert. 

Queen Victoria's Bathing Hut and the beach at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

In contrast, the queen had her own bathing machine. The whole contraption could be run into the sea so that she could enter the water without being seen. 

Queen Victoria's Bathing Hut at OsborneOriginal Source: OSBORNE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Victoria recorded her first experience of sea bathing in 1847 in her Journal: ‘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).’ 

Her restored bathing hut was returned to the beach in 2012.

Victoria Queen Of England OsborneLIFE Photo Collection

The gardens at Osborne were a refuge from busy court life. Beautifully completed to Albert’s vision, they provided places where the royal family could relax and enjoy their surroundings. 

After Albert’s death in 1861, the house and gardens were a place of solace for Victoria, and she continued to visit Osborne until her own death in 1901.

Credits: Story

Text by Emily Parker

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