Brighton Pavilion: Britain’s Own Kubla Khan
by Alicia Rasley
(My Tryst at the Brighton Inn is set outside Brighton. In fact, Natasha is on her way to Prinny’s birthday picnic at the Pavilion when she gets caught up in a murder.)
In 1786 George, Prince of Wales was 24 and newly married, illicitly, to his great love Mrs. Fitzherbert. He was also deeply in debt, hundreds of thousands of pounds owed for jewelry, horses, and especially his beautiful London home, Carlton House. When the stress in the capital got too much, he would retreat to a farmhouse he owned in the seaside town of Brighton.
But this was the time leading up to that astonishingly creative period known to most of the world as “the Romantic era,” though most of us would call it the Regency. And this was the future Prince Regent, “The Prince of Pleasure.” A simple farmhouse wouldn’t satisfy his extravagant nature and luxurious tastes for long. So soon he hired the fashionable architect Henry Holland, who started adding to the farmhouse. And adding. And adding. Holland designed the first of the great buildings, the Marine Pavilion, in the clean neo-classical style Prinny favored. One of the special features Holland provided for his royal patron was a tunnel to the nearby home of Mrs. Fitzherbert, still the secret wife.
The Marine Pavilion in 1787
For most of the next decade, Prinny contented himself with furnishing the pavilion, spending thousands on art, fixtures, and draperies. This was hardly his only extravagance, but it was a major contributor to the impossibly large debt that he’d accrued by 1795. In fact, in return for Parliament paying off his debt, he was forced into a bigamous marriage with his German cousin Caroline. He could be forgiven, perhaps for later wondering if it was worth it, because his was one of the worst marriages of all time.
Once freed of his crushing debt, Prinny felt up to spending again. But few of us would argue with his choices. For example, one of his early decisions was to put a couple water closets in the main building, for those special guests who weren’t up to battling the sea breeze to get to the outdoor privies. He kept (this will not surprise you) three confectioners on his Brighton kitchen staff, and brought Holland back to create a special confectionery in the kitchens.
The Grand Saloon, where the Regent entertained guests, changed occasionally to show the particular trends in high-priced decorating. The room was remodelled in the late 1790s by the artist Biagio Rebecca, painted in dramatic colors with gilt-framing. While he did use some French artisans and artists, in the time of war, Prinny tried to be patriotic. Much of the furniture was built by such great British cabinetmakers as Chippendale and Seddon. (The “sociable” circular couch in the middle of the room is probably from a later period, as it appears in a print that pictured the room in early Victorian times.)
Fortunately, the prince’s taste wasn’t confined to European. A gift of some Chinese wallpaper inspired the prince, and he conjured up a manically oriental design for the main rooms of the Pavilion. Biographer J.B. Priestley describes one feature, “Along the southern wing was an astonishing Chinese passage of painted glass, decorated with flower, insects, fruits and birds, and illuminated form the outside, so that guest could easily imagine they were passing through an immense Chinese lantern.”
By the turn of the century, Prinny turned his attention to the outbuildings, commissioning a new stable and a riding school. Even he was taken aback at the elegance of the resulting buildings, admitting that his horses were being “housed in a palace.” In fact, the new additions posed a pair of problems. The facades were in an Indian style, clashing with the more classical house, and also, with a 65-foot high cupola, the stable outshone Prinny’s own home. This could not, of course, be borne.
Much of the time before his Regency were spent hiring and firing architects. First he hired Humphry Repton, primarily a landscape architect, submitted plans to unify the house and gardens with an Indian theme. Prinny declared this a “perfect” design, but Parliament didn’t agree, or at least didn’t agree to finance it. By the time he had the blunt, he’d moved on from the “mogul trend” and he reached out to a new architect, James Wyatt, to make his Gothic dreams come true. Imagine a neo-Gothic monstrosity rising out of the South Coast landscape! Well, you’ll have to imagine it, for before he could break ground, James Wyatt was killed, and Prinny had to search for new inspiration. It took years after Prinny became Regent, but finally he turned to John Nash, who was a known quantity, having already remodeled Carlton House. (He had also once been a student of Repton’s, who could not have been pleased to be set aside this way.) Nash got to work, and by 1815, he had expanded the Pavilion and unified its exterior into a vaguely Indian shape.
Nash used the Pavilion as an opportunity to experiment. After all, the nation was paying the shot! He used cast iron to strengthen the walls and pillars while still creating an illusion of Oriental fragility in the minarets and domes. He built new kitchens and heated them with steam. The queen mother was so impressed by all this, she gave her reckless son fifty thousand pounds, some of which went to creating State Apartments suitable to host the Prince, the Queen, and other royalty.
For the rest of his Regency, and during his own reign, Prinny used the Brighton Pavilion both as a canvas for his creativity, and as a retreat from the barrage of criticism he faced in London. As author Victoria Hinshaw remarks, the Pavilion’s “constantly changing architecture and decoration reflect the restless personality of George IV.” He frequently summered there, and was engaged in constant improvements to the house and grounds. Even so early, the Pavilion was something of a tourist attraction, rising up on the edge of town like a vision of Kubla Khan’s palace.
The Nash-designed Pavilion
Royal sea-towns were nothing new. For example, Prinny’s father had made Weymouth to the west a popular escape. But Brighton was special, only a day trip from London, and even then possessing a raffishly louche mien that would have appealed to the fun-loving prince. There’s no doubt, though, that without the Pavilion, Brighton would be just another beach town. Instead, it became a fashionable watering-hole, and many nobles made the trip down in order to attend one of the Regent’s elaborate parties.
After he became king in 1820, Prinny continued to host admirers at the Pavilion, until poor health kept him confined mostly to London.
After he died, his brother William IV also came to use the Pavilion as a refuge, for as a sailor in his youth, he had affection for the sea-vistas. He and his queen became known for their informal get-togethers especially in the summers. The continuing royal patronage turned Brighton from a small town to one of southern England’s major cities, with more the 40,000 residents in 1831.
But his successor didn’t regard Brighton so fondly. Queen Victoria, Hinshaw reports, didn’t like the house. The decadent Pavilion couldn’t help but remind the prim new queen of her pleasure-obsessed uncle, and as her family grew, she found little use for this holiday home. But she treasured it enough to let it stand, and in 1850 she sold it to the city of Brighton. First, however, she stripped much of its elaborate furnishings; most of these have been returned, but some are still to be found in Buckingham Palace.
Soon the city reopened it as a showplace, charging a sixpence to the tourists to ogle the garish yet oddly tasteful rooms. Several times in the next century, the Pavilion was remodeled, once to turn it into a hospital for victims of the Great War. Though it must have posed an inviting target to the Luftwaffe, the Pavilion survived World War II and was extensively renovated during the post-war period. The renovators this time consulted period guidebooks and sketches as they tried to return the house to the one of Prinny’s vision. The house was almost finished when an arson in 1975 almost destroyed the Music Room. Author Leslie Carroll remembers visiting years later and finding that part of the house was still closed for repair. The Music Room was barely reopened when the epic storm of 1987 dislodged a stone from the minaret and once again damaged the salon.
However, private donations and contributions from the local and federal government have funded a massive renovation, and the Pavilion is now restored to its former glory. To tide us over until we can all take a road trip and see it in person, here is a 9-part (!) class about Brighton Pavilion from the Open University: http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=399183
This is a great multimedia experience, with color plates, floorplans, and snippets of the sort of music Prinny would commission for his parties.
The Brighton Pavilion is, above all, an experience, onr that manifests the extravagant and romantic Regency period, and recalls the Prince who remains the most poignant symbol of that time. As the OU concludes, “The Pavilion itself has been called silly, charming, witty, light-hearted, extravagant, gloriously eccentric, decadent, childish, painfully vulgar, socially irresponsible, a piece of outrageous folly and a stylistic phantasmagoria. Whatever you decide about it, it has always been, beyond all dispute, an astonishing flight of the Romantic fancy.”
For a quick look at the Pavilion, author Ashley Kath-Bilsky suggests the videos made by the Brighton Museum, narrated by Andrew Barlow, the former Keeper of the Royal Pavilion at http://www.brighton-hove-rpml.org.uk/RoyalPavilion/video-tours/Pages/FirstFlooroftheRoyalPavilion-VideoTour.aspx: “He gives some interesting back-story to the history of the Pavilion, i.e., the wood and wrought iron that was made to look like bamboo, or the 16 x 10 foot marble bathtub that could hold 6,000 gallons of fresh or salt water.”
Brighton and Hove. http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/towns/brighton.shtml
Dale, Antony. Fashionable Brighton. London: Oriel Press, 1947.
The Marine Pavilion. Georgian Net. http://www.georgianindex.net/Brighton/marine.html
About the author: Alicia Rasley is a RITA-award winning Regency writer who tries to visit England twice a year. (In her dreams….) New book set near Brighton!
Check out the Amazon page for Regencies by Rasley.
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