Coming face to face with the Royal Pavilion is quite unexpected. What is a building, that looks like the Taj Mahal, doing here by the sea in Brighton? The surprise is even greater when you go inside this palace because it’s decorated in a most extravagant, largely Oriental style. So why is the interior style Indian and Chinese and what is this extraordinary building doing here?
The Brighton Pavilion was built over a period of years by George, the Prince of Wales, who later became the Prince Regent in 1811 and then finally King George IV. He first came to Brighton when he was twenty one for two reasons: Brighton had become the new fashionable place to visit because a Doctor Russell, from Lewes nearby, had suggested that swimming in the sea, drinking seawater and taking in the sea air was beneficial for the health; as the Prince had gout, due to his playboy lifestyle, his physician had recommended this regime. Up until then the royal family, the rich and the aristocracy had been going to the town of Bath for their health because of the mineral water spas there, but Brighton then became the new fashionable place to go instead.
It had also gained a reputation for fun with gambling, good food and theatre due to George’s uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, who lodged in a house near the pier that is now the Royal Albion Hotel. The Prince was also in trouble with Parliament for overspending on his house in London so he came to escape from court and enjoy the company of his mistress, Maria Fitzherbert. She was Catholic and so he wasn’t allowed to marry her, as when he became king, he would become head of the Church of England; so he married her in secret.
The Prince rented a modest house on the Steine, which was extended in 1787 and decorated at that time in the French style. Then he bought more property, which he used as stables and a riding school; these were built in an Indian style and are today known as the Dome. It was the height of the British Empire, the crown of which was India so the Indian style of architecture became fashionable, as did Indian-inspired wallpaper, interior and textile designs.
The stables were bigger than his house, with room for sixty horses, so he decided to extend the house and brought down his favourite architect from London, John Nash. Nash designed a type of plaster cast on a frame, which was made to cover the entire building and it is this structure that gives the Pavilion its distinctive Indo-Islamic appearance. The fanciful interior design also has Chinese influences because Britain was trading with both India and China at the time. Ships would leave London almost every week to bring back tea, textiles and other Oriental goods. The Prince had a lot of the furniture and designs that you see in the Pavilion copied from objects brought back on these ships.
Wherever the Prince went, the fashionable people followed – the rich and aristocratic crowd who preferred the lifestyle of the Prince’s court in Brighton to that of his conservative father George III in London. The Prince would give intimate dinners in the exotic dining room with its dragon-shaped chandelier; these dinners would sometimes have sixty courses! The huge kitchen was fitted out with all the latest modern equipment – even an automatic spit for roasting meat. There would be music in the luxurious ballroom lit by beautifully painted Chinese lamps. There would be gambling too and the Prince would preside over all this often dressed in Oriental costume.
The Prince’s father disapproved of his son’s wayward lifestyle and especially of his ‘secret’ wife Maria Fitzherbert, whom the Prince tried to keep hidden by putting her in a house further down the road (which today is the YMCA). There is a rumour that there was a tunnel between the palace and her house so that she could visit the Prince without being seen. However, if you look at some of the cartoons of the period you can see that the relationship was well known to everyone. And when the Prince was forced to marry Caroline of Brunswick to help out his finances, the cartoons often portrayed the two women on either side of the Prince, who is seated Buddha-like and dressed in Chinese costume. He was so overweight and his belly so big he had to have a specially made trolley on wheels to carry it in front of him!
When he became King George IV in 1820, he spent more time in London where his ministers found him to be selfish, unreliable and irresponsible, unable to provide leadership in a time of crisis and totally wasteful at a time when Britain was fighting the Napoleonic wars. And, although he was not a role model for his people, many of whom had only contempt for him in certain circles, he was however a patron of the Regency period with its new forms of leisure, style and taste and he was known as ‘the first gentleman of England’.
In 1837, when Queen Victoria was on the throne, she visited Brighton and took a dislike to the Pavilion because it wasn’t private enough and it was too small for her, so she sold it to Brighton Council. All the furniture was removed and distributed throughout other royal palaces. Later, during the reign of the current Elizabeth II, up to one hundred pieces were lent back to the Pavilion to recreate the atmosphere and surroundings of that period when Brighton was a royal resort.
Today, it is one of the most visited and most admired of Brighton’s tourist attractions and with good reason: it is amongst the most lavish and eccentrically imaginative buildings in the world!