The Durbar Room at Osborne
Recent work on Queen Victoria's Osborne House helps visitors understand what life there was like for the Royal Family, their guests, the household and the servants.
The Durbar Room's new carper is a machine-made reproduction of the originaL
© English Heritage
Osborne House on the Isle of Wight was built between 1845-51 as a country retreat where Queen Victoria could be free from state ceremonial. It was funded by the Privy Purse, so Prince Albert was free to bypass the Office of Works. He worked directly with Thomas Cubitt in what was, effectively, a design-and-build contract.

It was to Osborne that the distraught mother of nine children retreated after Albert's untimely death in 1861. The Durbar Wing, built in 1890-91, was the only substantial subsequent addition to the house. It met the changing requirements of the ageing widow for whom Osborne had become a principal year-round residence, not just a summer retreat.

Photograph of the Durbar Room taken in 1892
© English Heritage
Until then Osborne had lacked a room suitable for state occasions. Major events were held in marquees on the lawn. Equally importantly, Queen Victoria had agreed to her youngest child, Princess Beatrice, marrying Prince Henry of Battenberg in 1885 only on condition that she continued to live with her. The first floor of the Durbar Wing provided a separate apartment with its own entrances for the couple and their four children. The WC attached to the Durbar Room servery was even converted later to a photographic dark room for Princess Beatrice.

Queen Victoria became Empress of India in 1876. Unable to visit the sub continent, she brought it to her through her Indian servants and the portraits of dignitaries, soldiers and craftsmen she commissioned from the Austrian court artist Rudolf Swoboda. She also received numerous gifts from India to mark her jubilees in 1887 and 1897. The majority of these are caskets, in a wide variety of materials, and crafts containing loyal greetings from individuals and communities.

The choice of the Indian style for the Durbar Room was the culmination of this proxy India. The style of architecture had been used in the 1880s by Queen Victoria's third son Arthur, Duke of Connaught, for the billiard room at Bagshot Park. The interior was carved by Bhai Ram Singh under the supervision of Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard) who was director of the Lahore School of Art. The same team produced the Durbar Room at Osborne. The result is an eclectic combination of Mughal and Hindu motifs. Edward VII presented Osborne House to the nation in 1902 as a memorial to Queen Victoria. It was converted into a convalescent home for naval and military officers and their dependants, although the state apartments, including the Durbar Room, were open to the public on certain weekdays during the summer. The Durbar Room servery became the home dispensary and Princess Beatrice's apartment the nurses' dormitory. The Indianstyle banqueting furniture was disposed of in 1909. In 1917 Sir Guy Laking, Keeper of the King's Armoury, rearranged the Indian Collection and introduced additional items unassociated with Osborne.

By the 1990s, Osborne was open seven days a week from April to October, with limited opening in the winter months and attracting 250,000 visitors a year. The Durbar Room had lost its curtains, and the carpet was a plain dung-coloured effort whose sole virtue was that it was easy to clean after receptions. The collection on display had been reduced and the cases pushed back against the walls. English Heritage's curators and the Royal Collection, to whom most of the contents of Osborne belong, were becoming increasingly concerned about the quality of the presentation of the collection and the environment in the Durbar Room.

Photograph albums on the round table illustrate the wing's history.
© English Heritage
2002 is the penultimate year in a five-year project to commemorate the centenary of Queen Victoria's death at Osborne in 1901 and its first opening to the public in 2004. The exterior of the house is being repaired and conserved to recover its architectural integrity, and to recapture the original effect of Roman cement rendering imitating Bath stone. The interiors of the state apartments are being re-presented and the closure of the Convalescent Home in 2000 allows the provision of equal and easy access for visitors to the areas already under English Heritage's control. Notwithstanding the centenary, the significance of Osborne is not that Victoria died there but that she, and Albert, lived there. It was the first time since Tiberius on Capri that the world's most powerful empire was ruled from a small villa on an offshore island.

Our intention was both to give Osborne back the appearance of being lived in and to help visitors understand what life at Osborne was like, not only for the Royal Family and its guests, but for the household and the servants, and for official visitors. In the first year of the Centenary Project, the table deckers' rooms under the dining room were opened to visitors, conserved and presented as they would have been while in use. In 2001 the dining room where Queen Victoria lay in state was represented, furnished as it was originally with two tables, one of which is shown as if in the course of being laid for dinner, as it would have been during the day. The drawing room and billiard room will be re-presented for 2003 with replicas of the original curtains, carpets and chandeliers.

The historic interiors at Osborne are generally presented with their original contents in place and with a minimum of interpretation. Coming at the end of the visit, the Durbar Room offered the opportunity to make an exception without disrupting the continuity of experience. 'Me room itself was treated as the principal exhibit, whose presentation was not to be compromised by the presentation of the gifts, which in turn was not to be compromised by continuing to use the room for inappropriate functions.

The task in the Durbar Room was relatively straightforward, in as much as the room had only been in its original use for a decade. Lost details of the moulded plasterwork could be replicated from elsewhere in the room. The current decoration of the walls and ceiling was in reasonable condition and close to the original colour, though glossier than ideal. It was concluded that the cost and likely loss of crispness of the detail outweighed the benefits of redecoration. Cleaning and polishing the joinery revealed the variety in the timber employed.

The style of the Durbar Room is an eclectic combination of Mughal and Hindu motifs.
© English Heritage
The room was originally loose carpeted with a magnificent rug woven in the women's prison at Agra. The rug had found its way to the ballroom at Sandringham, where it is taken up when the house is open to the public, and it would not have survived relaying at Osborne. It was concluded that it was not practical on grounds of durability, quality control, cost and certainty of timely delivery to have a handmade replacement. Instead it was decided to make a machinewoven reproduction. The Royal Collection agreed to the original being taken out of store and photographed. The computer-controlled loom was able to reproduce convincingly the irregularities of pattern and colour of the hand made original.

Small samples of the curtains survived in the curatorial archive. The face fabric was a coarse cloth with a hand-blocked paisley design, the irregularity of which it was possible to simulate using silk-screen printing. The finer lining had an embroidered floral pattern which was also reproduced by silk-screen printing. This was consistent with the approach adopted for the carpet and decorations.

The exhibition cases were laid out to avoid obscuring the architectural features of the room. Neither the configuration of the room nor the nature of the exhibits lent themselves to a linear ordering of the exhibition. Instead it was structured according to the materials and craft techniques used. An interactive captioning system includes video of items being made using the traditional techniques. Samples illustrating the processes are fixed where they can be seen at close quarters and touched. Minimal conventional graphic captions have been provided for busy times and to cover for computer failure.

The cases are lit with fibre-optic light columns in the angles, sufficient to make the objects visible but not to detract from the room, which is naturally well lit but with the levels controlled for conservation reasons. The Durbar Room was the first royal interior and one of the first anywhere after Lord Armstrong's Cragside to be designed for electric lighting. The original scheme has been reinstated including exposed wiring to the fixed fittings. The level of illumination provided is low by modern standards, but combined with the case lighting meets current expectations without being excessively bright.

Although the Durbar Room is not presented as a furnished interior, a large circular table has been provided with photograph albums illustrating the wing's history, including its role in accommodating Princess Beatrice. This allows people to appreciate the room from the seated eye-level it was designed for. The chairs are simplified replicas of the originals, one of which is on display in the room.

The corridors linking the Durbar Room to the central Pavilion have also been represented in their historic character. The walls, which had declined to battleship grey with successive repainting during the convalescent home occupation, were restored to their original lilac. The Portland stone floor has been stripped of the hygienic white painted margins. The corridors are known from inventories to have had Agra carpet runners. When the Durbar Room carpet was taken out of store for photographing, six Agra runners of various sizes were found. These were photographed and remade as well. Five of them exactly fitted the corridors, and the odd one out has been laid under the gallery in the actual room.

With the corridors purged of accretive furniture, the effect is to recover their character as a picture gallery, reflecting the sculpture gallery of the Grand Corridor flanking the Pavilion on the other side of the forecourt. The Swoboda portraits and the superb Winterhalter of Maharaja Duleep Singh come to life in their proper settings. The inventories also show there was an Indian curtain between the corridors and the entrance to the Durbar Wing, which was the private entrance hall for Princess Beatrice's apartment on the floor above. The curtain has been reinstated to emphasise the distinction between private and public space. As the inventories give no indication of its character, the same fabric has been used as for the Durbar Room curtains.

There is not space here to give credit to all those who have made such a success of recovering another dimension in the story of Osborne. It is a story that is particularly relevant to today's multicultural society and to the debate on national character that the present Jubilee has stimulated.

Alasdair Glass is senior project director at English Heritage and was also director for the repair and conservation of the Albert Memorial.
CONTEXT 75 : JULY 2002