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No.13: The Royal Pavilion, Brighton

issue 42 Apr / May 2008

In this issue, Tim Burrell-Saward of Light Bureau chooses his favourite.

This sentiment can also be applied to the Prince Regents patronage of John Nash and the creation of the Royal Pavillion. He would no doubt have approved of his palace being illuminated in bright pink, as the style of the Pavilion, although referred to in architectural circles as ‘Regency’, is more ‘high camp’. It was built as a giant folly bursting with colourful inventive décor and imaginative oriental chandeliers and is documented to have been used as a sort of extended party game: a stage-set for private theatricals. Adorned with gilded dragons, carved palm trees and imitation bamboo staircases, it fuses the style of Asian exoticism with English eccentricity.Before taking on the more serious role of King George IV, the Prince Regent rented a farmhouse in Brighton in order to take in the sea air and enjoy liaisons with his mistress. In 1787 he employed Henry Holland to extend the farmhouse into a neo-classical building known as the ‘Marine Pavilion’. Between 1815 and 1823, at a cost of £500,000, John Nash was employed to transform the Pavilion, enlarging the building and adding the domes and minarets by superimposing a cast iron framework over Holland’s work. Nash was the darling of fashionable aristocratic society, eclectic, humorous and audacious in style, recklessly mixing forms, motifs and details from different historical periods and styles. Described variously as vulgar, decadent and an outrageous extravagance with noted diarist of the day, John Wiliam Croker quoted as saying; “it is, I think, an absurd waste of money and will be a ruin in half a century”. It is however, indisputably a romantic flight of fancy and is seen as a physical realisation of many aspects of Regency society.
Although it is Indian on the outside, the opulent interiors are Chinese and were designed by Robert Jones and Frederick Crace who created an exquisitely detailed riot of colour, texture, pattern and light. The extraordinary interior of the Music Room is lit by nine lotus-shaped chandeliers. The Long Gallery admits daylight through its large painted glass leylights and is illuminated by night with a combination of a large oriental style chandelier and painted lanterns. Even in the Great Kitchen where the ceiling is supported by four cast iron columns with painted copper palm leaves, daylight enters via the high lantern with its twelve sash windows. But the most spectacular interior is the Banqueting Hall, designed with a shallow dome. From the centre of the dome hangs a chandelier, 30 feet long, held in the claws of a silvered dragon suspended from the apex in the ceiling, while below, through a fountain of glass, six small dragons exhale light through lotus glass shades.
After George IV died, no-one appreciated his creation and Queen Victoria after visiting in 1837; “The Pavilion is a strange, odd, Chinese looking place, both outside and inside. Most of the rooms are low, and I can only see a morsel of the sea, from one of my sitting room windows” gutted the entire palace. The Pavilion was sold to the town of Brighton for £53,000 in 1850 and wasn’t used until World War 1 as a hospital for wounded Indian and West Indian servicemen. After many decades of neglect, a programme of restoring the stonework and structure of the Pavilion began in 1982, lasting ten years and costing over £10 million. The programme to reinstate the interior decorative schemes approved by George IV in the 1820s still continues today.
The Pavilion currently recieves approximately 500,00 vistors a year.

“The Royal Pavilion is as close to a physical representation of the spirit of the city of Brighton as you are ever likely to find – bold, brash, gaudy and leftfield. It’s the focal point of a city made up of oddballs and undesirables, artists and deviants, and with its history of debauchery, it is well-suited to the role.
There is something about its unashamed exoticism and sublime ridiculousness that resonated with me from the moment I saw it. Where else could you find vast Indian-inspired onion-shaped cupolas next to intricately carved full-size oriental dragons without having to visit a theme park? Perhaps that’s what makes it so appealing – it feels like it was put there to make you smile.
In 2004, Brighton Council decided to celebrate the Pride Festival by bathing the palace in a lurid pink light. To suddenly have one of the most prominent icons of the City display its apparent acceptance and encouragement of homosexuality was a refreshingly bold statement to make as not everybody in the city approved.
Technically it was a cheap, easy and un-complicated feat to achieve, but you really have to admire the balls that must have been required to see it through to fruition.”
Tim Burrell-Saward
Light Bureau




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