An Insider’s Tour of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton
One of the many highlights of my Attingham Summer School experience was the rooftop tour of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Rooftop is a bit misleading, however, as we not only went up to the roof, we went inside the roof.
Coming from the US, I am always amazed at things I can do in other countries that I would never be allowed to do here at home. Even though I signed my life away on a waiver to take the roof tour at Brighton, I cannot think of a location that would let me climb up a rung ladder, slide backwards through a hole about a foot and a half tall and then crawl on my hands and knees around the interior of the roof of an iconic historic building. Thank you, Brighton, for letting me do exactly that.
There is something otherworldly about the Royal Pavilion, especially from the roof. I felt as if I was in some far-off exotic land rather than fifty miles outside of London. In the 1780s, Brighton was transitioning from a small fishing village to a posh seaside resort known for the curative powers of its waters. It is hard to believe that what is now the Royal Pavilion was just a small farmhouse when George, Prince of Wales (later King George IV), purchased it in 1786.
In 1787, the Prince of Wales commissioned architect Henry Holland to enlarge the house and build a stable block for sixty horses, but the real transformation began in 1815 when George, now Prince Regent, commissioned architect John Nash to redesign the exterior and interior in a style inspired by William and Thomas Daniell’s Oriental Scenery, their volumes of illustrations from their travels in India. The opulent interiors were designed by Frederick Crace and Robert Jones with an update by Jones in 1823 to make them even more extravagant.
Unfortunately, George IV did not have much opportunity to enjoy his exotic pleasure palace after this last renovation. He ascended to the throne in 1820 and a combination of royal responsibilities and poor health allowed for only two visits after 1823. He died in 1830 and while his younger brother William IV did use the Royal Pavilion to some extent during his reign, it was in a much more subdued manner than his older brother.
Queen Victoria stayed at the Royal Pavilion when she came to the throne in 1837, but with its lack of space for her large family and the constant reminder of her elder uncle’s excesses, she never embraced it. She sold it in 1850 to the city of Brighton and in anticipation of it being demolished, had it stripped of its furnishings and almost all of its interior decoration. The city, by then a popular tourist destination with the advent of train service from London, realized the importance of the site and renovated it in a similar, although much less lavish and accomplished style. In 1864 and 1899, Queen Victoria returned many items with Queen Mary returning additional interior furnishings in 1920.
The Pavilion served as a hospital for Indian soldiers during World War I and was significantly altered and damaged as a result. In 1920, work to repair the damage was begun, halted during World War II, then restarted after the war with the goal of restoring George IV’s opulent interiors. The restoration has not been without its challenges, especially in the Music Room. It was badly damaged in an arson attack in 1975 and in 1987, a stone from one of the roof minarets crashed through the newly restored ceiling. Looking at the Music Room from the stained glass window from above, there was no evidence of these unfortunate incidents.
Restoration work is ongoing with an extensive project to return the saloon to its original 1823 grandeur recently completed. It was in progress during my visit and we had the privilege of textile expert and Executive Director of The Attingham Trust, Annabel Westman, share her experience of tracking down the pattern for the stunning crimson and gold wall hangings, a process that took years. The rest of the room is no less impressive – the walls are covered with over 17,000 hand-stenciled diamond shapes that were decorated with platinum leaf (silver leaf would have tarnished) and the elaborate carpet has been recreated as well. Suffice to say that a return visit to see this glorious recreation is on my list of things to do!
I remember the first time I saw the photos of this pavilion I thought it was somewhere in the Middle East or South Asia, not in England. I wonder if the fact that Queen Victoria returned many items to this place was because of its growing popularity. Whatever it was I’m glad she did, so now people can marvel at its past opulence.
Given how exotic the Pavilion looks even today, I cannot imagine what people must have thought upon seeing the it for the first time in the early 19th century. Given her dislike for it, I think that Queen Victoria was genuinely surprised that the city of Brighton decided to preserve the Pavilion and that it became a popular tourist destination. I think she felt that she should return some of the original furnishings and fittings since Brighton was working so hard to restore the site. Today, there are many items on loan from the Royal Collections, but photography is not allowed in those areas. The Pavilion truly is a marvel in many ways!
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