Brighton’s proud centrepiece is the Royal Pavilion – a Grade I-listed seaside palace and former residence of George IV. Renowned for its extravagant onion-shaped domes and minarets, this magnificent building is a must-visit attraction on England’s south coast.
Origins of the Royal Pavilion
By the mid to late 18th century, it was common practice among the wealthy and well-heeled to visit seaside towns, seeking the health-giving benefits of their local seawaters. As a result Brighton, like many coastal towns, became a fashionable holiday location for city dwellers looking to escape the confines of urban life. Accordingly, it was nicknamed ‘London by the Sea’.
As testament to Brighton’s high-brow appeal, Prince Henry, the Duke of Cumberland, established a residence there, so that he could sample the culinary delights and raucous nightlife of the thriving resort. His nephew George VI shared a similar enthusiasm for such extravagances and first visited Brighton in 1783. He had also been advised that the fresh air and seawater would help to treat his chronic arthritis.
During his early sojourns to Brighton, George rented a relatively modest lodging house – the cash-strapped prince was in financial trouble following the over-budget development of Carlton House in London which he had helped bankroll.
However, after Parliament agreed to clear his debts in 1876, he immediately set about converting his holiday dwelling into a residence fit for royalty. To assist in this task he commissioned Henry Holland, the man who designed Carlton House. Holland soon embarked on an ambitious project that transformed the humble lodging house into the left wing of a villa that was named the Marine Pavilion.
The Marine Pavilion, which originally featured just a breakfast room, dining room and library, was extravagantly furnished with oriental furniture and an assortment of neoclassical paintings. It was further extended in 1801 to include an additional dining room and conservatory.
Land surrounding the pavilion was also purchased, upon which a riding school and stables were constructed. The impressive stables complex, which now serves as the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery and concert hall, was designed by William Porden and featured a grand dome spanning 80 feet.
In 1815, designer John Nash was commissioned to redesign and extend the pavilion further. His radical plans saw the royal residence converted into the majestic palace that we see today. As part of the elaborate seven year project, a cast iron frame was attached to Holland’s original villa.
This was used to support the distinctive Indo-Islamic minarets and domes that still grace the building. Little expense was spared on the design of the interior, which was exquisitely furnished by decorator Frederick Crace and painter Robert Jones.
The Palace Gardens
By 1820s, the palace gardens had been completed. Conceived by John Nash, they featured an assortment of exotic plants, trees mixed shrubs and herbaceous plants, through which a series of curved paths wended, affording superb views of the Royal Pavilion.
Although altered significantly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, work began in the 1990s to restore these handsome gardens to their former Regency glory – the project took almost 20 years to complete.
Sold to the City of Brighton
The palace remained a royal residence until 1850, at which point it was sold to the city of Brighton, by Queen Victoria. A year later, it was opened to the public for the first time. Although the building had been stripped of numerous decorations and fittings, many of these were later returned including chandeliers and paintings.
Military Hospital – Restoration
During the First Wold War the palace was used as a military hospital with two operating theatres and more than 700 beds installed. Some 2000 men were treated there over the course of the conflict including many Indian soldiers who played an important role during the bloody conflict. The hospital continued to operate until 1920 when it was once again returned to Brighton. An extensive renovation project was then undertaken.
Today, the Royal Pavilion stands as a striking reminder of George IV’s ambitious vision. Exhibiting a dazzling array of architectural styles and influences, it is Brighton’s most iconic building, attracting close to half a million visitors every year. Read on as we now take you through some of the main highlights of this beautiful seaside palace.
The exotic Banqueting Room is where George IV hosted his lavish feasts. Decorated in the Regency style, this wonderfully extravagant room was designed by the acclaimed artist Robert Jones. Highlights include decorative Chinese wall canvases, a dazzling one-ton chandelier that hangs from the claws of a silver dragon and an ornate Chinese clock and barometer. The floor space is dominated by a large banqueting table precisely set for an 18th century dessert course.
The Great Kitchen is located near the Banqueting Room and is where great chefs like French chef Marie Antonin Carême concocted their culinary masterpieces. Designed by John Nash and completed in 1818, the kitchen featured cutting-edge facilities for its time.
These including the latest steam technology, a constant water supply and an effective ventilation system. These cutting-edge facilities were a source of great pride for the King who would often escort his guests via the enormous cooking area during tours of the state rooms.
The Music Room offers further impressive examples of the oriental influences found throughout the Royal Pavilion. The incredible interior is graced by six large Chinese pagodas from the 19th century.
Embellished with gilded bells and dolphins, they are topped by winged dragons and snake-entwined arrowheads. Also of note are the nine lotus-shaped chandeliers, a gilded dome ceiling as well as red and gold wall canvases. Although damaged by both fire and storm over the years, the room has been painstakingly restored according to the original designs of Frederick Grace – George IV’s chief decorator.
In contrast to the opulently-decorated music and banqueting rooms, the decor found in the Royal bedrooms is slightly more subdued. English and French furniture, including an ebony writing desk, populate the King’s private apartment while the green dragon wall-paper helps lend an air of restrained elegance. A collection of ante-rooms and a library are also part of the apartment complex.
The Yellow Bow Rooms
The Yellow Bow Rooms were originally used by the Duke of York and Duke of Clarence. Their walls are decorated in a less muted colour scheme of yellow and feature prints of dragons, birds and phoenixes. Chinese oil paintings and watercolours hang on the walls and offer a striking contrast to the rich red fabrics that adorn the bed and windows.
Queen Victoria’s Apartments
Queen Victoria’s apartments comprise a bedroom, a maid’s room and closet. These have been furnished to reflect their early-to-mid 19th century appearance and feature hand-painted Chinese wall-paper that’s accurately based on the original oriental design. However, the apartment’s centrepiece is a mahogany four-poster bed complete with straw, hair and feather mattresses.
The Saloon is a triumph of restorative craftsmanship, with the ornate silver and white wall decorations returned to their early 18th century grandeur. The highly-skilled renovation work also involved the installation of silk panels and majestic scarlet and gold drapery.
And in keeping with Regency extravagances, a reproduction carpet was fitted comprising the same elaborate design of its predecessor, namely dragons, lotus leaves and sun rays. Also of note is the beautiful Kylin Clock – adorned with Asian porcelain and gilt bronze foliage.
The reception rooms consist of the Long Gallery which connects to the Banqueting Room Gallery and the Music Room Gallery.
Today the Long Gallery is furnished with a collection of Chinese objects d’art and other exotic fittings including beech furniture. Its pink walls, complete with 1950s reproduction prints of rocks, trees, shrubs and birds, are intended to depict a bamboo grove.
The Banqueting Room Gallery
The Banqueting Room Gallery is actually on the site of the original lodging house and served as an after-dinner room. Moulded columns resembling palm trees support the second floors, while some of the original drinking vases, used by George IV are also on display.
The Music Room Gallery
The Music Room Gallery was also a place of retirement after an evening’s entertainment. Its centrepiece is a rosewood grand piano. Presented to the Pavilion by the Queen Mary, it is very similar to the Regency instrument that once stood in this very room.
Garden and Estate
The beautiful Royal Pavilion Garden and Estate has been restored according to John Nash’s early 18th century designs. The impressive grounds are maintained using natural planting techniques and are home to an abundance of plant and tree species.
These include elm trees, laburnum trees, almond trees, wild daffodils, roses, chrysanthemums, sunflowers and tiger lilies. The gardens also serve as a stop-off point for migratory birds as observed by the RSPB.
A Prince’s Treasure
Also not to be missed is the Prince’s Treasure exhibition which runs until autumn 2021. On display are more than 100 works of art loaned to the Royal Pavilion by Her Majesty the Queen. The items were originally commissioned by the Prince Regent but were moved to Buckingham Palace.
However, they’ve been brought back to their original setting and include an array of decorative ornaments and paintings including 15-foot porcelain pagodas, the Kylin clock as well as priceless oriental vases and candelabra.
Visiting the Royal Pavilion
In addition to self-guided visits of the Pavilion, audio guides are also available which offer fascinating insights into the history of the Royal Pavilion as well as the man behind its creation, George IV.
The tour takes visitors through the palace room by room and includes interviews with the many curators and conservators who help to maintain this historic building. An alternative tour which explains the pavilion’s role as a Word War 1 hospital is also available.
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