Oh Britannia!

All seven of us filed into the van; the youngest thirteen the oldest, ninety-two. We hailed from France, New Zealand and Scotland; three in the very back, two occupying the middle seats and my husband and I at the helm in the front. We were ready!

Before long we were on the ferry sailing to the Isle of Wight, comprehensive picnic packed and a day of adventure before us on a cool, but sunny August day 2016.

First stop, Osborne House – wow; it was very nearly our only stop! We stayed there for much of the morning and into the afternoon. Better to linger and truly appreciate one historic site, than drive madly around the isle to end up seeing very little, we thought.

As for Osborne House; can I suggest if you haven’t been; go… It is fabulous! I was enjoying everything. Two of my favourite rooms were the nursery and the Indian styled banquet hall.


then a staircase loomed into view and there it was…

Neptune Resigning His Empire of the Seas to Britannia. I was in love.

Neptune resigning the Empire of the Seas to Britannia, by William Dyce

Out came the camera, out came the questions and out came the warm fuzzies. I could only wish for such a fresco of my own.

Painted by William Dyce , (1806–1864) 350 x 510 cm was commissioned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1846-47 for the staircase of their holiday palace, Osborne House, East Cowes.

Albert was sponsoring artistic and national traditions in England as he had in Germany and so a fresco was chosen as an authentic example from the Renaissance.

The seascape with whirl of bodies clearly recall Raphael’s The Triumph of Galatia, 1514 in which the sea nymph rides in a chariot drawn by vigorous dolphins surrounded by semi-human naked figures in passionate pose.


In the Osborne House fresco Neptune, supported by his entourage, is handing the crown to Mercury, who has wings on his cap. We can see from Mercury’s stance, that he is already in motion to transfer the crown to the gold-covered figure of Britannia, who holds a ceremonial silver trident in her right hand. Neptune’s conch-blowers play a fanfare as Britannia, with her entourage including the lion of England and figures representing industry, trade, and navigation, readies herself to receive it.

The fresco’s narrative denotes the assumption of power over the seas of the world by Britannia, symbolising the Queen herself. Yet such frivolousness was rather un-Victorian – Albert “thought it rather nude; the Queen however said not at all”; nursemaids and French governesses were said to be scandalised!

William Dyce was born in Aberdeen, he was trained in the Royal Academy Schools in London, and spent about two years in Rome between 1825 and 1828.


He had a long and significant career in art education and was invited to run the newly-established Government School of Design in London, which later became the Royal College of Art. In 1838 he was commissioned to enquire into the future of art and design education, and formulated what became known as the South Kensington System, which was the dominant model for art education for the remainder of the nineteenth century.

He was working on the frescoes in Westminster when he collapsed, and later died at his home in Streatham on 14 February 1864. He was buried at St Leonard’s Church, Streatham.


The largest collection of William Dyce’s work is held at Aberdeen Art Gallery Scotland. A tiny selection can be seen in the slideshow.

All this knowledge was birthed from simple, but exciting trip to the isle.

Please leave comments on your experiences at Osborne House and your thoughts on William Dyce. He was not an artist I was familiar with before our trip the Isle.

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