Research trip to Osborne House


Playwright Tanika Gupta describes a research trip to Queen Victoria's former home, Osborne House.

As a playwright, I can spend days upon days stuck in my own head, making up stories, trying to make scenes work, squinting at a computer screen. It's always a welcome relief to get out and do some active research!

The trip to Osborne house on the Isle of Wight with Pippa, the Literary Manager, Zoe, our Producer and Emma Rice, the Director, gave me the opportunity to get under the skin of Queen Victoria in her later years - one of my characters in my new RSC play, The Empress, and her relationship with her Indian 'Munshi' (teacher), Abdul Karim.

As we walked up the gravel path through exquisite Italianate landscaped gardens, the sun came out and Osborne House almost gleamed and smiled at us in the sunlight.

The curator, Michael Hunter, met us and gave us an exclusive private tour of the house.

Tanika Gupta, Michael Hunter and Emma RiceBought by Victoria and Albert in 1845, the royal couple had re-built the house and gardens for summer vacations with their nine children. They had their own private beach where the Queen even swam and collected sea shells. It was Victoria's favourite home. (She had a few!)

Knowing my particular interest in Osborne House, Michael took us first to the Durbar Room. I was quite taken aback by the sheer artistry and 'Indianness' of the room. Floor to ceiling of ornately embellished plaster work with images of the elephant god Ganesh and Indian peacocks galore.

The room was built in the 1890s as a banqueting room when Abdul Karim would have been in attendance to the Queen.

In the corridor outside the room hung portraits of Abdul Karim painted by Von Angeli as well as a very impressive copy of the portrait by the old Queen herself. But there weren't just portraits of her favourite manservant, the walls were covered with paintings of her Indian servants and Indian royal visitors. I found it strangely moving.

Michael showed us old photographs, copies of Victoria's diary entries in Hindi, Victoria and Albert's study and even their bedroom.

Pippa Hill looking at old documents in Osbourne HouseOne got the feeling of a very happy family home run by an accomplished and clever young couple. They could sing, compose music, paint and draw and had a very strong appreciation of the arts.

Rather oddly (I thought), in the small double bed where the royal couple slept, a few days after Albert's death, Victoria had erected a plaque on the head board stating the date of the first time the couple had shared the bed and the last night Albert had spent there. Victoria herself, also died in that bed in Osborne House in 1901 with Abdul by her side.

The following morning, the four of us sat around a table and read my play out loud. It felt very poignant but also appropriately challenging. Whilst my play does deal with the very human and affectionate relationship between Victoria and Abdul, it is also a critique of the ravages of Empire under Queen Victoria's rule.

Immediately after her death the house was shut up and Victoria's rooms barred for half a century but The Empire went on. My own family's involvement in later years to fight for independence from British rule ended in spawning a martyr, death, poverty and famine in Bengal. As a direct result of Empire, my family were scattered across the world.

A fascinating journey into the world and character of Queen Victoria, Empress of India, who built a loving home with her husband, who learnt Hindi, painted portraits, loved men passionately, ruled the world from her chair and who apparently liked chicken curry.

Photos from top: Osborne House; Playwright Tanika Gupta, Curator Michael Hunter and Director Emma Rice; Literary Manager Pippa Hill studying photos.

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