Right in the middle of the city of Brighton, just 250 metres from the beach, is one of Britain’s most extraordinary buildings. The Royal Pavilion sits on English land, yet from the outside looks Indian and on the inside looks Chinese. The English prince who built it spoke English but had a grandfather who was Hanoverian.
The early history - in brief
We must thank King George IV (1762 - 1830) for Brighton’s Royal Pavilion. We might also say that his father - King George III (1738 - 1820) - played just as large a part in this story, because his life and his reign (règne) as King were both longer than any other British monarch before him. This meant that his eldest son, George, the Prince of Wales, had plenty of time on his hands before the responsibility of kingship passed to him.
The young Prince of Wales first visited Brighton in 1783. His doctors thought that a stay by the seaside (bord de mer) would benefit his health and he himself wanted time away from his father’s court. What he found in Brighton pleased him: there was a lively social scene of wealthy aristocrats and there was gambling (jeux d’argent), there was theatre and there was horse-racing (la courses de chevaux). This was an ideal place for a rich, young prince … but it required him to have a home there.
George began by renting a farmhouse. In secret, he then married the beautiful Maria Fitzherbert and paid for her to live nearby. In 1787, he began work on transforming the farmhouse. With its new domed rotunda and columns, he called this his Marine Pavilion.
Prince George’s wait to inherit the throne (trône) and become king was a long one. The delay in him taking on royal responsibilities is one explanation for why he spent so much money transforming a modest farmhouse into a wildly sumptuous palace by the sea. Eventually, after the Prince’s father’s health deteriorated in 1811, Prince George was declared Prince Regent for the last 10 year’s of his father reign. The Prince’s final transformation of the Marine Pavilion into the Royal Pavilion heralded England’s Regency era with its elegance and - in Brighton’s case - frivolity and ostentation.
1803 - 1808: an Indian stable block
The first sign that George was planning something ambitious was the construction between 1803 and 1808 of a Stable Block. This was a massive building sufficient for 60 horses, topped with a 20 metre high dome. It was inspired by pictures of the Friday Mosque in Delhi. (Prince George never visited India or China.) An equally impressive Riding House was built next to it.
1815 - 1823: the main Indian pavilion and its Chinese interiors
Having completed the stable block and riding house, it was obvious that the older Marine Pavilion was now dwarfed and would be the next target of the Prince’s lavish (prodiguer) spending. With the adjacent stables already having an Indian appearance, the die was cast. John Nash, the architect, proposed a new palace with an Indian exterior. The Prince Regent agreed. He had, after all, visited the Mogul Indian-style house, Sezincote in Gloucestershire, in 1807 and the effect it had on him must have been decisive. Work on the Pavilion started in 1815.
By 1823 all major work on the pavilion had been completed, both inside and outside. The extraordinary chinoiserie interiors were the work of designers Robert Jones and Frederick Crace. Their intention was to provide the pavilion with a relatively plain entrance hall, a richly-decorated long gallery, a dramatic banqueting room and an utterly dazzling music room. The effect became richer the further into the building one ventured and this remains the case today.
The Royal Pavilion was eventually sold by Queen Victoria (1819 - 1901) and was bought by the town of Brighton in 1850. The town/city has been responsible for its upkeep (entretien) ever since, and has had generous support from various sources, notably the government, the royal family and the local community.
Although repairs and restoration have been more or less on-going since the early part of the 19th century, what we see today is an exceptionally authentic version of what visitors would have seen when the work was first finished. This is remarkable given the accumulated ravages of time: the use of the pavilion as a military hospital (for wounded Indian soldiers) during the First World War, an arson attack in 1975 which badly damaged the Music Room and then, just as the repair work was nearing completion, the 1987 storm damaged the Music Room’s roof.
A relatively plain Entrance Hall
A richly-decorated Long Gallery
Although the pavilion’s Entrance Hall gave some indication of the Chinese influences awaiting inside, the Long Gallery removes all doubt about this. Obsessive detail is everywhere. Everything is in motion. Mirrors add to this effect, multiplying the volume of the decoration. Even the staircases (escaliers) at each end of the gallery, made in cast iron and mahogany(fonte et acajou), imitate bamboo.
The dramatic Banqueting Room
The Prince Regent enjoyed eating well. He liked entertaining. Having a room in the pavilion that was devoted to this was extremely important. The Banqueting Room provides this in a dramatic fashion.
As one passes from the Long Gallery with its low ceiling, the Banqueting Room seems vast. Its high dome is filled with copper (cuivre) leaves from which is suspended a silvered dragon holding in its claws (griffes) a 30ft chandelier that weighs about a ton. The effect is astonishing.
From today’s perspective, with an imaginative leap - or a suspension of disbelief, we’re caught between seeing this design as either inspired or mad. Here was a Prince wealthy enough to show off that wealth, fashionable enough to be way ahead of anyone else in the kingdom, independent of his father - or maybe just a little unhinged (déséquilibré). Who knows? We look at all this through today’s perspective and are perhaps not so forgiving. Could it even be a kind of 19th century Trump Pavilion?
The dazzling Music Room
The Music Room is arguably even more richly-decorated than the Banqueting Room. It is where the King and his guests retired to after dinner. Once again the theme is Chinese - in red and gold with a profusion of dragons, both painted and carved.
Upstairs galleries and chambers flooded with colour and light
The bedrooms and galleries upstairs have a rich variety of colour schemes, all of which are vivid. Be prepared for excess. Not much is plain and simple.
The Royal Pavilion Today
Residents of Brighton may have grown used to seeing the pavilion as they pass about their daily activities. Visitors may take time to accept it. Dare we say that it’s either inspired or plain bonkers (cinglé)?
Whichever view we take, what Brighton’s Pavilion does show us is that George IV was a magnificent patron of the arts and that successive generations have decided that the his pavilion and its contents are well worth preserving.
Some of the photographs on this page have been kindly provided by the Press and PR Department of the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, http://brightonmuseums.org.uk.