Pitter patter… |
If Queen Victoria is the “Grandmother of Europe”, then Osborne House on the Isle of Wight could be rightfully described as the nursery of European royalty. Her nine children, five daughters - Victoria, Alice, Helena, Louise and Beatrice -, and four sons - Edward (VII.), Alfred, Arthur and Leopold - , laid the foundation for a network of family connections throughout Europe that continues to this day. Unfortunately,
these family bonds, as we know, did not prove strong enough to prevent the devastating conflicts of the first half of the 20th century in Europe, but
Osborne stands as a potent reminder of the Victorian age … and the more private aspirations and ideals of the Royal family.
From the mid-1840s Osborne House became the favourite retreat for the
Queen and her ever growing family. Driven by Prince Albert’s continental-progressive ideas about education, the house with the newly built Swiss Cottage and later the museum, became the probably rather noisy playground of the Royal children on the Solent. Handily placed a 15-minutes walk from the main house within the woods, and just another short distance from the family’s private beach, it became its own little world, adventure ground and schoolyard for the Royal children.
Last year English Heritage newly opened Queen Victoria’s beach, a mile and a half from Osborne House, which made a previously neglected part of the property accessible again to visitors. Complete with a 19th-century bathing machine and its now restored se se ated alcove, from where the Queen and mother might have supervised her boisterous crowd, it adds an important aspect to Royal life at Osborne.
The second part of the redevelopment is called “Childhood at Osborne”,
the re-presentation and –interpretation of the Swiss Cottage and its adjacent museum, miniature fort and garden plots. It is a juicy challenge: to restore a place once built for and crowded by children, make it attractive to modern family visitors, whilst preserving both its spirit and its fabric. English Heritage has described it as an intriguing insight into family life at Osborne, and an attempt by the Royal couple to bring up their children as normal people – undoubtedly idealistic, but not entirely realistic in its intention, since the role of “ordinary citizen” never really was on the agenda for their offspring …
It is interesting that to date there had been little interpretation of
what must have been, during the mid-19th century, an essential part of
the life of the Royal family on vacation at Osborne, and a place where the future political elite of a whole continent was raised. It is also a slightly incongruous place, with its Alpine structure, carved with Teutonic proverbs telling them, in strict German, how to behave, such as 'You will carry your load muuch easier if you add patience to the burden'. But then, on the other hand, when seen together with the Italianate main house and gardens, its specimen plants imported from all over the globe and the museum’s collections from the Empire and beyond, it could be argued breathing the truly international air of the estate.
Visitors will enter the world of Swiss Cottage as it might have presented itself in summer 1861, one of the last times the family was to come here together before Prince Albert’s untimely death. There will be three parts to the experience: a heritage experience in the cottage itself, adventures in the landscape and a (replica) play area to complement the Royal Children’s miniature fort . Visitors will learn about the previous inhabitants, their mishaps and adventures, and about the expectations and aspirations of their Royal parents. There is no dearth of contemporary voices and documents – added charm and poignancy will come for example from Queen Victoria’s own original watercolours and drawings, describing family life.
The contract for interpretive design and built is worth £155K and
includes an interactive introductory exhibition in the four rooms on the ground floor of the Swiss Cottage, facsimile items to feature the 1860s-story in the cottage’s furnished rooms – which will remain as the largely historic interiors of the 19th century – explorer bag and object spotter sheets for the museum, orientation and interpretation panels for key features in the Royal children’s gardens, an adventure trail in the gardens, a nature trail of carved animals and birds along Rhododendron Walk, handheld information for the cottage furnished rooms and
museum, a family story leaflet and interpretation on catering materials. It was won earlier in 2013 by Outside Studios a London-based consultancy, whose recent work includes the David Nash installations at Kew Gardens, the Jewel Tower and ThinkTank’s Outdoor Science Garden. According to Angharad Brading, interpretation manager at English Heritage and responsible for the delivery of the project, the integration of highly interactive interpretive media and 19th-century
illustrations and photographs into a family-friendly experience is a
cornerstone of the vision for the Swiss Cottage.
Funding for the 1.7m overall project comes from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation and other donors, and it includes conservation work to preserve the structure of Swiss Cottage and objects from the museum. Work to date has already revealed long hidden
interior decoration including a larder/dairy which would once have been used by the Royal children alongside the kitchen and scullery. The new displays will also show how the children prepared meals in the kitchen and scullery for their parents.
If everything goes to plan come April and the sound of little feet and voices will fill the cottage and its surroundings once more with boisterous life.