The Isle of Wight and a Victorian Love Affair
By Mary Anne Evans
The Isle of Wight off the south coast of England is famous for Cowes Week when the cream of the international yachting world descend on the island to compete in races that take in forty different classes. It’s always held in August just after horse racing at Glorious Goodwood and just before the Glorious Twelfth when the grouse shooting season starts. The inevitable advance of corporate sponsorship might have taken away some of its old-fashioned glamour, but it’s still very posh and very British.
But to many ordinary Brits, it’s not Cowes that we associate with the Isle of Wight. For me, like so many of my friends, the island conjures up fond memories of lazy summer holidays, long sunny days spent on the beaches, building sand castles and devouring picnics that were always crunchy from the sand that inevitably worked its way into the sandwiches.
There were drives to an afternoon tea stop along small country lanes where cottages sit snugly in gardens full of old-fashioned flowers, runner beans and soft fruit pens. And endless cycle rides on paths through the fields and along the coast where the sound of halyards slapping on masts made us long to sail away into the Solent and off to sea.
As children, we scrambled around medieval Carisbrooke Castle where after the English civil War the naïve King Charles I thought he would be welcomed as an honoured guest but was imprisoned instead; we visited the gorgeous, jagged series of rocks known as the Needles and Alum Bay where we bought test tubes filled with the different coloured sands from the cliffs that look across the Solent. The tubes sat on our mantelpiece for years. Idyllic? Well yes, in the way that so many family holiday memories are.
As we grew up, we abandoned the Isle of Wight for more exotic destinations. So it was with some trepidation that I returned to the island this Spring, wondering what the changes might be. I need not to have worried; I discovered a past that more than matched my childhood memories.
The Isle of Wight and the Victorians cemented their love affair when a young Queen Victoria purchased Osborne House in 1845. It was to be an escape from the overblown, formal and public life of London. Victoria’s German husband Albert, frustrated by his lack of importance and activity in London, found a new purpose and immediately began planning the transformation of the modest house into an Italianate palace.
The building is dominated by the splendid central tall Pavilion where the couple and their expanding family spent much of their time. Ground-floor rooms are filled with gilded columns and mirrors, heavy red damask curtains, dark coloured carpets, huge mirrors and pictures and ornaments everywhere, even in the billiard room which every respectable Victorian household had to have. On the floor above that, Victoria and Albert shared a central sitting room and had their own suites off to each side. The third floor housed the nurseries and servants’ rooms.
Visitor were welcomed to the audience and the Council Room to the right of the central Pavilion, walking down a corridor designed to impress if not downright terrify them.
But all the Victorian heavy grandeur fades into insignificance in the wing to the left of the Pavilion. There’s another splendid corridor here as well, but the wow factor comes when you enter the Durbar Room. Brilliant white ornate plasterwork covers the walls and the ceiling; a huge peacock in all its fan-like glory dominates the fireplace; a dining table runs the length of the room set for a banquet. It’s quite extraordinary – an Indian palace in a thoroughly British, and Victorian, setting.
The Empress of India never actually visited India much to her regret, but she had a real love of the subcontinent. Her Indian servants wore turbans and clothing specially designed and embroidered with the monogram VRI (Victoria Regina et Imperatrix – Victoria Queen and Empress). Abdul Karim became particularly close to the Queen, replacing John Brown as her favourite which caused the strictly hierarchical household a huge upset. The Queen asked her equerry, Frederick Ponsonby, to check up on Karim’s background (Karim claimed his father was a surgeon-general in India). When Ponsonby told the queen that Karim’s father was the pharmacist to the gaol in Agra, the Queen refused to invite Ponsonby to lunch for a year.
Once over the pomp and circumstance of Osborne, it’s the details of daily life that intrigue: the rich curtains separating the billiard room from the drawing room so the men could technically play, and more importantly, sit within the queen’s presence, normally not the done thing; an intricate 19th-century German musical box playing music from Tannhäuser by Wagner in the nursery; the ear piece in the hallway connected to the tower where a look-out servant was placed when the Queen was expected; the splendid lift installed by Otis in 1893 where the Queen could be wheeled into her ‘rolling chair’ which was manually operated by an attendant in the basement.
The main house isn’t all there is to see. Walk to the Swiss Cottage, designed by the practical Albert as a place where the royal children, rather surprisingly, learnt housekeeping and cooking. Then make your way down through the wood to the sea and the Queen’s private beach. In 1855 a landing house and jetty were added and a little shelter with seats for bad weather appeared in 1869. Here the children played with their governess while the Queen stepped into her bathing machine to be pushed slowly and regally down the stone rails into the sea.
There’s more high Victorian life at Farringford where the exalted poet Alfred Lord Tennyson lived from 1853 until his death in 1892. Despite the Gothic features and castle-like walls, it’s a relatively small, delightfully intimate house. Tennyson and his wife, Emily, bought it to escape London life where Tennyson was as popular as the celebrity rock stars of today. He was mobbed wherever he went, even managing to eclipse Dickens at the great writer’s own funeral in 1870.
A shy man, the poet laureate preferred the rural delights of the Isle of Wight, surrounded by family and visited by an exalted circle of Victorian painters and writers such as Millais, Holman Hunt and George Frederick Watts. When Edward Lear visited he gave Tennyson a large copy of his famous alphabet. Tennyson ironed the paper sheets onto canvas and stuck them onto the walls of the nursery where they remain, slightly faded.
The house is a delight, rescued, restored and decorated by a local islander. She bought the property which was then a hotel owned by Sir Fred Pontin in 2007, and spent five years on the project, using Emily Tennyson’s own inventory to reproduce the original wallpaper and chase down the Tennysons’ furniture and personal objects, some given by the current Lord Tennyson.
It all adds up to a real Victorian home that the Tennysons adored: an incredibly bright, almost vulgar blue room with its original 1850s frieze inspired by the Parthenon; the secret spiral staircase that Tennyson used to race down when unwanted visitors attempted to reach him upstairs; his writing desk where he wrote the poems that so stirred the Victorians like The Charge of the Light Brigade and Maud, his Windsor chair and two globes. In the childrens’ rooms, there are bugles (it was by all accounts a very noisy household) and board games.
In 1855 the Tennysons welcomed another visitor. The eccentric Julia Margaret Cameron fell in love with the island and in 1860 she and her husband bought two cottages in Terrace Lane at Freshwater Bay to turn into Dimbola Lodge. When her daughter gave Julia a camera she took to the infant art with a passion, turning her coal-house into a dark room and a chicken house into a studio to produce images which were startlingly different from anything that had been seen before. Many of her subjects were friends, the cream of Victorian intellectual society: Browning, Rossetti, Watts and Darwin and others who put up with the discomfort of the long sessions. They were the lucky ones; she pounced on local children and forced them into costumes; she locked her maid in a cupboard for hours to get the right sad expression. “I will leave you with Mrs C and come back in a few hours to collect what remains” Tennyson said to the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as he left him at Dimbola Lodge.
The house has happily been rescued from demolition and today contains an extensive collection of her photographs. The images hanging on the walls and up the staircase are remarkable, pictures of past figures either as straight portraits or dressed in fanciful costumes, reflecting the Victorian passion for the romantic past of King Arthur, Shakespeare and figures from Greek mythology.
The rooms that you can see are compact; this was a modest provincial Victorian home. Upstairs are her recreated bedroom and galleries with a timeline of her life, good descriptions and old photographic equipment. There’s a room where you can copy Julia’s love of dressing up then take a photograph of yourself behind a frame that mirrors the colours and speckling of old photographs.
Despite her fame – or notoriety – at the time and her impressive list of friends and relatives (Virginia Woolf was her great niece), Julia Margaret Cameron has only recently been recognised with a series of exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 2014 and the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2018. A visit to Dimbola Lodge will convince you of her extraordinary talent.
We covered just part of the Isle of Wight, basing our itinerary around the Victorians who were so inspired by the sea, the light and the long views. The tourist office helps with a Literary Heroes Trail publication which takes in Farringford but also the village where Enid Blyton used to holiday, Winterbourne in Bonchurch which Charles Dickens regularly rented, and Ryde, where Anthony Minghella, screenplay writer and director The English Patient and hits like Truly, Madly, Deeply and The Talented Mr Ripley was born and educated.
So I needn’t have worried about those childhood memories; I now have different associations with the Isle of Wight. But I have to confess that I did buy a glass bottle with those different coloured sands, and yes, it is sitting proudly on my mantelpiece.
Isle of Wight Facts
Getting to the Isle of Wight
Stay at North House in West Cowes. In the old town, the former Georgian townhouse has been given a shabby chic interior with wooden floors, sisal mats and top bathrooms. There’s a good restaurant, bar, library, garden and outdoor heated swimming pool.
The Villa Rothsay Hotel offers something a little more eccentric so if you like the Victorian style of heavy furniture and plush furnishings, this is the place.
Mary Anne Evans is a former magazine editor and now a freelance travel writer living in London but partly spending her time at her 400-year old house in the remote French area of the Auvergne. She is the author of guide books to Brussels, Bruges and Stockholm, and contributes to Frommer’s Guides to London and France. She also writes extensively about Scandinavia and the Nordic countries. She is about to launch her own website: Mary Anne’s France