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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

The Royal Pavilion Brighton: The Regency Palace of King George IV

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

The Royal Pavilion- Exterior

Regency architecture encompasses buildings built in the United Kingdom during the Regency era when George IV was Prince Regent, as King George III was deemed unfit to rule due to his illness, a period that just last 9 years between 1811-1820 but it is also attached to earlier and later buildings following the same style.

Thinking about Regency style, the most Elegant English style, is to think about elegance and simplicity as described in the novels of Jane Austen. One of the major streams of the Regency style was the Neo-classicism but it was also marked by an increase in the use of a range of eclectic Revival styles, from Gothic through Egyptian, Islamic to Indian.

George IV’s architectural taste was very adventurous, lavish and opulent but at the same time very innovative and unusual as his interior design and decorations.

Throughout his adult life, George was an important artistic patron, acquiring an impressive collection of art and patronising architects and designers. George was a modern dandy with limitless appetize for food, cloths, shopping and women. George as Prince of Wales, when he turned 21 in 1783, took his first London Residence, Carlton House. He experimented with all range of architecture styles as a testing ground for his later scheme in Brighton, Windsor and Buckingham Palace. Carlton House was small for his architectural ambition and it was structurally unsound and later on, he demolished it and concentrated to build a bigger royal palace: Buckingham Palace.

George developed his architectural dreams in Brighton, a town that was transformed from a small fishing village into a fashionable resort in the mid-eighteenth century through the promotion of the therapeutic quality of the sea water. The Prince first visited the town in 1783 with his uncle the Duke of Cumberland. George liked the city and enjoyed the lively company of the circle of the Duke of Cumberland, the theatre, the gambling, the races and the medical purposes. Determined to have a house of his own in Brighton in 1786 took up residence in a modest lodging house on the Steine.

In 1786 to escape from his debts in London, George IV retired to Brighton and installed in a villa nearby Mrs Fitzherbert, his secretly and illegal wife. The following year his financial position was solved and his debts paid, he asked to the architect Henry Holland to transformed his modest house in a small neoclassical structure with a central domed rotunda surrounded by ionic columns. The result was known as the Marine Pavilion.

Undated print Marine Pavilion by Henry Holland 1786-87

Under the influence of the Prince Regent, William Porden, John Nash’s assistant, added a large stables and riding school based in the design of the Corn Market in Paris but in the Indian style which would be the decorative prototype for the “Oriental” incarnation of the Royal Pavilion by its principal architect, John Nash.

The evolution of the Pavilion from the modest neoclassical structure designed by Henry Holland in 1787 to the grand oriental design of the architect John Nash, completed in the early 1820s, mirrors the changing status of George, Prince of Wales, from Prince Regent (1811-20) to King George IV (1820-30).

The Pavilion is a marvellous eclectic design: Indian in the outside, Chinese in the inside.

It is actually only a western interpretation of the East. George never visited either but loved the exotic fantastical vision of both.

1815 was a really important year for Britain as a powerful nation after the victory at Waterloo.

Napoleon was defeated in the battle but also in art, George always saw him as a competitor in both fields.

Probably the defeat of Napoleon the Emperor of Europe and the increase of the British Empire specially in the East, may have encouraged George to see himself as Emperor of the World.

Nash’s vision for Brighton was an amalgamation of the Prince’s aesthetic sensibilities and his colourful personality.

The domes and minarets found on the exterior of the Royal Pavilion were inspired by Oriental scenery, the collection of drawings by Thomas Daniell, William Daniell and Humphrey Repton. Although the exterior had the elements of Indian architecture, it had a more Mughal touch with a generic sense of orient.

Mughal architecture is the type of Indo-Islamic architecture developed by the Mughals in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. It developed the styles of earlier Muslim dynasties in India as an amalgam of Islamic, Persian, Turkic and Indian architecture, which the British regarded as the classic Indian style.

The building had a sense of lightness and airiness due to the rhythmic profusion of the domes and minarets which were supported by the cast iron frames and the vertical thrust.

Cross-section of Royal Pavilion by John Nash, (detail), 1827 © British Library Board

In the central Pavilion dome, you can see John Nash’s elaborate cast iron frameworks which he built over the existing Marine Pavilion building, to support the dome above the Saloon.

Because Nash could not support the additional storey and new onion shaped roof on the existing external walls, he devised a cage of iron columns encircling the walls. It was a daring technical stroke and Nash experimented widely with new materials on an unprecedent scale. It was one of the first domestic uses of iron, having previously only been used in bridges or factory buildings.

The Pavilion, a commendable structure, was built to impress and surprise the visitors.

The interior of the Pavilion reflects the combined talents of the artist-designers Frederick Crace and Robert Jones with a prevalent Chinese style mixed with Gothic and French neoclassical style.

The final schemes, with their rich and sophisticated decoration combined with the superb quality of the furniture and furnishings, created a magnificent and appropriate setting for the new monarch. The decoration is designed to increase in richness as the visitor penetrates further into the building. The decorative schemes are planned to work from the floor to the ceiling with particular emphasis being placed on dramatic forms of lighting, one of the obsessions of George IV.

Entrance Hall
The Entrance Hall from Nash's Views, designed by Frederick Crace

From an Octagon hall, guests progressed in the first room the Entrance Hall. This room was decorated by Frederick Crace with panels and banners of serpents and dragons on a pale green background. The room has a clerestory of glass windows painted with dragon designs in yellow and green. Following the route, the visitors entered in one of the most beautiful places: The Long Gallery.

The Long Gallery

The Long Gallery from Nash's View, showing Frederick Crace's final scheme

The Long Gallery links the Entrance Hall with the Music Room and the Banqueting Room.

The Long Gallery was also used as an area for playing cards, conversation or musical entertainments. The walls, now a copy, were portioned by a bamboo fretwork, were painted with a design of rocks, trees, shrubs and birds in tones of blue on a pink background. The interior was furnished with bamboo-pattern cabinets and pedestals, oriental jars and bottles, pagodas and Chinese figures. The Long Gallery exemplifies the illusion and decorative tricks: the stairs were iron cast imitating bamboo, furniture in beech simulating bamboo and painting windows at each end illuminating from the exterior at night, by gas, suffusing the interior with soft colours.

The next room is the magnificent Banqueting Room with its splendour decoration.

Robert Jones decorated the walls with large canvases painted with Chinese domestic scenes, all removed later by Queen Victoria.

The Banqueting Room
Detail of the dragon holding the central chandelier

The central point is the 30 ft chandelier hung to the dome, held in the claws of a silvered dragon suspended from the apex of the ceiling and below six smaller dragons exhaled light through lotus glass shades. The effect as contemporary observed, was “dazzling”. The overall scheme represented a late flowering of chinoiserie concealed with brown and gold canopy with their complex designs of fabulous beasts, heavenly bodies, and rays. All these decorations are Masonic symbols as the Prince of Wales was the Grand Master of the Prince of Wales Lodge, constituted in 1787. Many banquets were held here with menu with as many as sixty dishes. Today the table is set for the dessert course with an appropriately lavish display of ormolu, candelabra and plates.

It was the custom in the Regency period to display with great care the hot’s collection of plate, as it emphasised his status and wealth.

The Great Kitchen
The Great Kitchen from Nash's Views

Another fantastic place is The Great Kitchen. George IV was delight not only with the design but also the equipment of his new kitchen, sometimes also known as the “King’s Kitchen”, as George liked to present this rooms to his guests. The kitchen was an example of modernity and technology. A high lantern ceiling fitted with twelve sash windows gave the spacious interior light and fresh air. Four cast iron columns with copper palm were supporting the ceiling, copper tent-like awnings were designed to draw away the excess heat, smell and steam from the cooking range beneath.

On the south wall a stool kitchen fire with smoke jack, that could move simultaneously five spit, enabling the chef to present several roast dishes on the menu.

The Saloon

One of the oldest parts of the Pavilion is the Saloon decorated originally in neoclassical style, after in Chinese style but Jones redecorated it in 1823 with an opulent and Royal scheme. The room was reopened in 2018 after six years restoration trying to recreate the Jones’scheme. The walls are decorated with mirrors and with motif of leaves and flowers on a ground polished pearl-white distemper. Silk wall panels and curtains in a pattern described as “His Majesty’s Geranium and Gold Colour Silk” have been reproduced as the beautiful carpet replica of the hand-knotted Axmister Carpet.

The Music Room

The next room represents one of George IV’s great passion: music. The extraordinary Music Room lit by nine lotus-shaped chandeliers. The walls decorated by Crace and Lambelet with Chinese scenes in rich red heightened held up by painting dragons. In this room the Italian composer Rossini visited the Pavilion in 1823 and performed for the King.

The King’s Apartments, private rooms, were intended for comfort and convenience rather than public display and so were decorated in a more restrained style. One of the Chinese patterns was reused in the Yellow Bow Rooms for the Brothers of George IV, the Duke of York and The Duke of Clarence. The colour was Yellow Chrome, colour not commercially available before 1818, so at the time was an innovative and modern choice.

The King's Apartments
The Yellow Bow Rooms

King George IV did less frequent visits to the Pavilion and last one was in 1827, three years before he died. His brother William IV succeeded him as a King and reigned until 1837. His niece Victoria then became Queen. She used the Pavilion as a Royal Residence till 1845 when she decided to sell it. She felt she was constantly being stared at by the public and it was too public a place for her family. 143 wagons of the interior furnishings and decorations were removed and taken to London for the Royal Collection. In 1849 a Bill was brought before Parliament which would have allowed the demolition of the Pavilion and the selling of the site for redevelopment. This measure was opposed by a public petition and a determined campaign led by the Town Clerk of Brighton, Lewis Slight. The Pavilion was bought by the town for £53,000.

It remains the only British Royal Palace not owned by the state or by the crown.

The Pavilion opened to the public. Attending to decorates the room in the original styles, Queen Victoria returned many items as chandeliers, paintings and fixings. The Pavilion was used for a large range of events, from prestigious assemblies and balls, a tea room, to bazaars, baby contests, flower shows and even a flea circus. Writers such as Oscar Wilde and William Thackeray gave lectures. In 1861 Brighton Museum opened in the Pavilion and in 1866 the town’s first library was established here. One of the most extraordinary uses was as a hospital for Indian soldiers during First World War. At a time when Britain desperately needed to retain the loyalty of India, the Pavilion hospital became a valuable propaganda tool.

Indian soldiers in the Music Room
Indian soldiers in the Stables

Many Kings and Queens returned furniture and some were recreated with historical sources. In 1980s and 90s the surrounding gardens were also reinstated as far as possible to their original layout and planting. John Nash original plan for the gardens were an integral part of his overall vision for the estate. They showed a new ornamental style of gardening, with shrubberies, flower beds and winding paths in contrast to the 18th century landscape garden with its emphasis on visual effects rather than flowers.

The Royal Pavilion has a varied and fascinating history and for 200 years the Pavilion has been bound to the identity of Brighton colourful and often controversial Brighton has grown around the iconic symbol of the Pavilion into the city it is today. Design for entertaining and pleasure the Royal Pavilion was not expected to last two centuries.

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