We appear to be living through a new Victorian era. In the ITV drama Victoria, Jenna Coleman plays the 19th-century monarch not as socially hidebound, but as a free-spirited young woman, regularly in conflict with the men surrounding her. And in the recently released film Victoria & Abdul, Judi Dench returns to the royal character she played two decades ago in Mrs Brown, bored and longing for the novelty of a new companion. Enter a young Muslim attendant from Uttar Pradesh, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), with colourful tales of the Raj…
Much of the film was shot at Victoria’s summer home of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight – the first time its opulent interiors have been used as a film location. These include the Durbar Room, where the ruler of the vast British empire entertained European royalty. Victoria and Albert bought the estate in East Cowes in 1845, and its views over the Solent were said to remind Albert of the Bay of Naples. The couple raised their nine children there, often bathing in the sea from the beach attached to the house.
But they weren’t the only figures of note to have lived on or visited the island during the Queen’s reign. Edward Lear, for instance – the artist, composer and writer of nonsense poems, such as The Owl and the Pussy-cat – was a regular visitor to Osborne House, where he taught drawing to the artistically talented Victoria.
Lear was a member of what came to be known as the “Freshwater Circle”, which had grown up around the Lincolnshire-born poet laureate, Alfred Tennyson, who moved to the island in the 1850s. He first rented, then bought, the imposing Farringford House in Freshwater Bay, on the island’s western reaches. Here he found the sort of peace that eluded him in London, and wrote of his new home: “Where, far from noise and smoke of town/I watch the twilight falling brown/All round a careless-ordered garden/ Close to the ridge of a noble down.”
Tennyson composed some of his most famous poems on the island, including The Charge of the Light Brigade, written in 1854, just weeks after Victoria’s cavalry had suffered fearsome losses against Russian artillery during the Battle of Balaclava.
Among Tennyson’s circle were the Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, the painter George Frederic Watts, and the early photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron, whose soft-focus approach to portraiture flew against the formal, technical qualities that most early photographers applied. A museum dedicated to her work at her home, Dimbola, in Freshwater, is open all year round.
In fact, the artistic scene was so thriving that the 16-year-old daughter of Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray said of her visit to the island in 1853, “Is there no one who is commonplace here? Is everybody either a poet, or a genius, or a painter, or peculiar in some way?”
Charles Dickens also spent time on the island while he was writing David Copperfield. He rented a large country house in the village of Bonchurch, near the seaside resort of Ventnor, in 1849, and wrote to his wife: “It is the prettiest place I ever saw in my life.” Perhaps inevitably, he entertained Tennyson and Thackeray during his stay there.
Other geniuses of the Victorian era made their way across the Solent, too. Karl Marx stayed in Ryde in 1874. And Charles Darwin started On the Origin of Species at the King’s Head Hotel in Sandown in July 1858. He returned to the island ten years later, when Julia Margaret Cameron took a remarkably soulful photograph of him.
The monarch may not have met all these great artists and thinkers personally during her time on the Isle of Wight, but they prove that even this small, pretty corner of her realm was home not to the repressed but to the creative and revolutionary.
Victoria is on Sunday at 9pm on ITV.
RT TRAVEL For cottages and villas on the Isle of Wight and in the UK, visit radiotimes.com/cottages