Royal Pavilion, Brighton – a Prince’s fantasy palace

Brighton Pavillion

Step inside the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, for a riot of style and colour – from the awe-inspiring Banqueting Room to the ornate Saloon – designed by John Nash for the Prince Regent.


Brighton Pavilion at Night


Prince Regent © The Royal Pavilion
& Museums, Brighton & Hove

Many of us holiday in the same place each year. Those lucky enough to be able to do so might consider buying a holiday home. George, Prince of Wales, later King George IV (1762-1830), took that idea just a little bit farther, transforming a farmhouse into the remarkable Indian fantasy palace of pillars, domes and minarets that is the Royal Pavilion in the south-east city of Brighton.

Not all contemporary observers were impressed. In his 1830 book Rural Rides, William Cobbett describes how a box and assorted turnips and flower bulbs could be used to build one’s own version of this “Kremlin, the very name of which has so long been a subject of laughter all over the country.” 

 

Yet the Pavilion had a huge influence on the development of Brighton, making it fashionable and prosperous and paving the way for it to become one of England’s best-loved seaside resorts in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, it is the most vibrant and exciting city in southern England outside London.

John Nash’s view of The Music Room © The Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Ironically, when George first rented the farmhouse that would become the Pavilion, in 1786, he did so to demonstrate financial restraint. Three years after coming of age, the prince was tens of thousands of pounds in debt, having spent far beyond his generous allowance indulging his passions for the arts, gambling, delightful food, drink and female company. 

He had visited Brighton for the first time three years earlier with his uncle the Duke of Cumberland, a man of similar tastes, ostensibly for medical reasons. Brighton’s seawater was reputed to have beneficial effects on health (whether bathed in or drunk) and George’s doctors believed it could ease his glandular problems. 

George clearly found Brighton to be a most convivial bolthole and returned here three years later with his mistress, Mrs Maria Fitzherbert, whom he had married in secret. The modest farmhouse was thought an appropriate dwelling for a prince keen to repent his previous excesses. 

The Saloon © The Royal Pavilion
& Museums, Brighton & Hove

The following year, having persuaded Parliament to clear his debts, he bought the farmhouse and commissioned Henry Holland to extend it into a neo-classical villa, the Marine Pavilion, which soon became his favourite residence. New buildings were added over the next 20 years, including a huge new stable block (now the Brighton Dome concert hall and theatre), which could accommodate 62 horses. 

 

Finally, during the period when George ruled as Prince Regent during themadness of his father, George III, the architect John Nash, already transforming Regent’s Park and Regent Street in central London, was hired to create the building we see today. No expense was spared. It took seven years, starting in 1815 and entailed the construction of an iron framework over Holland’s Pavilion to support the exotic exterior features; and the addition of two new staterooms and an extensive kitchen complex. 

Outside, the pavilion is an Indian Mughal palace (sort of). But inside, the unifying decorative theme is Chinoiserie, the craze for Chinese decorations that had been so fashionable in English country houses during the 18th century. 

The superbly-detailed fittings and furnishings of the Long Gallery, the first of the major rooms into which visitors pass today (just as George’s guests would have done 200 years ago) serve as a good introduction to this style, but are merely an appetiser before the decorative feasts of the awe-inspiring Banqueting Room.

Here, the subdued colours of the Long Gallery are succeeded by a rush of light and space, with a vast domed ceiling high enough to accommodate the average house, crowning a wide room filled with an array of treasures. They include eight torchères: huge blue Spode porcelain lampstands, designed by Robert Jones, mounted with ormolu dragons. They cost around £6,000: an astronomical figure when you consider that servants working at the Pavilion earned around £30 a year. 

The Banqueting Room © The Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

A massive chandelier, 30 feet long and a ton in weight, is held in the jaws of a huge silver dragon below the ceiling. A ring of six smaller dragons surround the glass chains of the chandelier, their necks curled upwards beneath large lotus flower lampshades into which they would have appeared to be blowing the flames of the oil lamps flickering inside. The table is laid with silver gilt Regency tableware. It’s the sort of room that leaves visitors shaking their heads in disbelief. 

The Great Kitchen was a state-of-the-art facility, complete with a mechanical spit-turner driven by the upward draught from the kitchen fire. Visitors can inspect an intimidating dinner menu cooked here in 1817 for the state visit of the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia by the legendary French chef Marie Antonin Carême. Looking at the dozens of rich dishes may provide an explanation both for how George became so famously fat in middle-age and why few of his guests stayed here for more than a week – it may have been necessary to undergo some kind of digestive rehabilitation at that stage. 

George’s guests were able to recover from dinner in the comfortable rooms between the Banqueting Room and the other great stateroom, the Music Room. They include the Saloon, currently under restoration, where you can see a display revealing some of the tools and techniques used by restorers working at the Pavilion; and the Music Room Gallery, where the carpet could be rolled back and the floor below chalked for dancing. In the Music Room itself, where red and gold carved and painted Chinese dragons and snakes glide around the walls, between painted canvases of Chinese scenes and below another vast domed ceiling, covered in gilded cockleshells. 

The South Galleries © The Royal Pavilion
& Museums, Brighton & Hove

This was the sumptuous setting for some memorable musical evenings when George lived here, but it has endured a difficult history in more recent times. In 1975 the room was severely damaged by an arson attack, after which it remained closed to the public for more than ten years while under repair. Not long after it reopened, a huge stone ball, part of one of the roof minarets, was dislodged by the winds of the Great Storm of October 1987 and plunged through the ceiling, punching a hole through the 26,000 gilded cockleshells and crushing part of the carefully reconstructed carpet. Some have suggested that these misfortunes may be supernatural in origin: depicting snakes and dragons next to each other is thought by the Chinese to be very unlucky. 

 

Elsewhere on the ground floor you can see the King’s Apartments, also added by Nash, including George’s bedroom. In his later years the king slept downstairs, the years of indulgence having taken their toll. Grossly overweight (his waist eventually measured more than 50”) and suffering from acute gout, he was reduced to moving himself around in an early type of wheelchair. The bed now in this bedroom was made for his apartments at Windsor Castle, where George died, lying on a couch next to it. “Good God, what is this?” he apparently called out, before grasping the hand of his page and uttering his last words, “My boy, this is death”. 

In 1850, the Pavilion was purchased by the Corporation of Brighton from Queen Victoria, who was less enamoured of the Pavilion and Brighton, not least because by the time she stayed here for the last time in 1842 the railway had arrived, bringing a huge influx of visitors who regarded the Queen and her family as a tourist attraction. Almost all its contents had been removed but a series of refurbishments funded by the town and the gradual return of some items by the Royal Family laid the foundations for its rebirth in the 20th century. 

Without decades of dedication on the part of conservationists, by now the Pavilion would surely have perished, after suffering in the damp climate of the classic English seaside resort for 200 years. For most of that time it has been afflicted by dry and wet rot, by rusting of the ironwork supporting its exterior features, and by water damage caused by blocked gutters on the roof. That it is still standing today is as much a testament to the talent and hard work of the specialists who have worked here since the end of the Second World War, as it is a reminder of the decadence of the Prince Regent and his social circle. 

“In the summer, it is eerily like being in India,” says David Beevers, the current Keeper of the Pavilion. “The illusion of the oriental fantasy that this building conjures up is very powerful.” David’s time is currently spent working on a display (opening March 2010) that will look at the Pavilion’s use as military hospital for Indian soldiers during the First World War. And when asked about his favourite part of the building? “It has to be the Banqueting Room. It never fails to amaze and the torchères are remarkable. Or the pagodas in the Music Room. They’re really very rare.” 

It’s easy to understand those who have criticised the Pavilion’s showy extravagance, not least because so many people were living in such poverty during the years when George lavished such extraordinary sums of money upon it. But it is somehow fitting that this unique building, the presence of which did so much to create modern Brighton, today attracts visitors from all over the world. It is a true treasure. And perhaps George himself would be amused to see that so many of those who visit the Pavilion find it to be enormous fun. That was the whole point, after all.


For details on visiting The Royal Pavilion, Brighton, tel: 0300 0290 900; www.royalpavilion.org.uk.

It is open to visitors every day except: 24-26 December. Open Apr-Sep 9.30am-5.45pm (last admission at 5pm) and Oct-Mar 10am-5.15pm (last admission at 4.30pm).

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