Birthdays at Osborne
From 1846 until Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria and Albert were almost always at Osborne for their birthdays, on 24 May and 26 August respectively. Our knowledge of their birthday celebrations and traditions provides a revealing insight into family life at their seaside home.
Central to their celebrations was present-giving, and the birthday gifts the royal couple exchanged – paintings, furniture and other works of art – reflected both their personal tastes and the latest fashions in art and design. Many of these gifts are still displayed at Osborne today.
Find out more here about how Victoria and Albert spent their birthdays at Osborne.
Victoria’s First Birthday at Osborne
The first birthday Victoria celebrated at Osborne was her 29th, on 24 May 1848. She was woken by the band of the Royal Marines playing under her window, and after dressing went to look at her birthday gifts with Albert and their six children. The gifts were all laid out on a ‘birthday table’ (see below).
The queen recorded the events of the day in her journal, noting that ‘the Children ran about, playing most happily, whilst we were at breakfast’.
She had travelled to Osborne from Buckingham Palace two days before her birthday with Albert and the children. They stayed there for four days and celebrated their daughter Helena’s second birthday on 25 May before returning to London.
‘I received many lovely things … such a quantity from dearest Albert’ (Queen Victoria’s Journal, 24 May 1848)
The practice of setting out a birthday table for gifts, decorated with flowers, is one that dates back to Victoria’s childhood. For her first two birthdays at Osborne, the birthday table was in the Horn Room. By the 1850s, a spare bedroom in the main wing of the house had been established as the ‘present room’.
The birthday tables were an art form in themselves. They were even recorded in a series of watercolours – Victoria engaged two artists, Joseph Nash and later James Roberts, to paint her birthday table room at Osborne each year. These images are so detailed that it’s possible to identify each birthday gift. In later years photographs were taken too.
‘We all went into the room, where my present table had been arranged. Again such beautiful gifts!’ (Queen Victoria’s Journal, 24 May 1851)
Victoria’s 29th birthday presents
Victoria’s birthday gifts can be seen clearly in the 1848 watercolour below of the Horn Room at Osborne. The room’s usual furniture, made of stags’ antlers (from which the room takes its name), has mostly been removed and the room is richly decorated with flowers.
Many of the gifts displayed on this birthday table can still be seen at Osborne. Use the image windows to view and find out more about them. All the highlighted objects were gifts from Prince Albert, apart from the portrait of Princess Charlotte, which was given by the Queen of the Belgians.
Victoria and Albert’s birthdays at Osborne followed quite a regular pattern. As for Victoria’s 29th birthday, the day usually began with the Royal Marines band playing below Victoria and Albert’s bedroom windows. Often the tune was one of the hymns composed by Albert himself. After dressing, the children gave them bunches of flowers. Then the entire family would make their way to view the gifts displayed on the birthday table. Breakfast followed in the dining room, sometimes with the band still playing on the terrace.
After breakfast the children performed music and recited poetry they had written themselves in the drawing room. In 1853, for example, one of the highlights was Prince Alfred (Affie) performing on his violin, as Victoria recorded in her journal later that day:
we went into the Drawing Room, where the children performed several musical pieces extremely well … Affie a small piece on the piano & 3 on his little violin, ending with ‘God Save the Queen’, Mrs Anderson accompanying him. He did it so nicely, for it is very difficult, & he only began the violin at the beginning of March, it being entirely his own idea.
Whatever the weather the family then went for a walk in the grounds, often to the Swiss Cottage.
In the afternoon they went into the grounds for a drive, and often a group photograph was taken on the terrace. The day was rounded off with a celebratory dinner, followed by further entertainment in which the children usually took part.
Albert, too, was almost invariably at Osborne for his birthday on 26 August. In 1851 the children sang outside his dressing room before taking him to the present room. There followed a French play acted by the five eldest children. As a treat the four eldest – aged between seven and ten – sat with their parents at the dinner table that evening for the first time.
Albert’s birthday celebrations at Osborne went beyond the family. They were usually also marked with a fête held in the Osborne grounds for all the workers on the estate. This allowed Victoria and Albert to demonstrate their credentials as caring employers and landlords.
The fêtes included a grand tea, a band, dancing, and games such as blind man’s bluff, sack races and bobbing for oranges. The servants took on sailors from the royal yacht in a cricket match. The first of these fêtes was in 1846, when 250 people attended.
Tree planting was another important aspect of the birthday celebrations at Osborne. The first commemorative trees were planted at nearby Barton Farm, once part of the Osborne estate, in August 1846 to mark Prince Albert’s birthday. In later years Victoria, Albert and the royal children planted many more birthday trees, often at Barton or by the Swiss Cottage. A number of these can still be seen in the grounds at Osborne today.
Victoria’s Last Birthday at Osborne
On 24 May 1861, Victoria celebrated her last birthday at Osborne.
‘The day opened … [with] … the tender love & affection of that dear Husband, who is my all in all, whom God will I am sure bless for years to come, & never let me survive! … I received beautiful presents, amongst which from Albert, a picture of beloved Mama, & a splendid Belgian picture, of the Konig See. The dear children worked, drew, & painted such pretty things for me …’ (Queen Victoria’s Journal, 24 May 1861)
Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, had died on 16 March that year, and the picture of her that Victoria mentions was a copy of a larger painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, painted just before the duchess’s death.
Only seven months later, on 14 December 1861, Albert also died, at the age of only 42. Overwhelmed by grief, the widowed queen immediately retreated to Osborne. But afterwards she would never again spend her birthday at Osborne, preferring to be at Balmoral instead.
During the 40 years of Victoria’s widowhood, the number of royal art acquisitions dwindled and there were few notable commissions. But the partnership between Victoria and Albert had been a vital part of the artistic life of the British court in the 1840s and 1850s, encouraged in no small part by the exchange of birthday gifts. Today, at least 80 of the gifts the royal couple exchanged remain at Osborne, part of its outstanding collection.
Top image: Watercolour of Queen Victoria’s last birthday table at Osborne, 24 May 1861, by James Roberts. The table is full of gifts from the royal children, including a painting of St Cecilia by Princess Alice in the centre. The large painting on the wall behind, The Königs See, was a gift from Prince Albert (see above). (Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019)
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