On 8 September 2018, the Saloon at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton re-opened to the public after a sixteen year restoration project. In this blog post I look at some of the history of the room, and pick out the three parts of the room I find most interesting: the carpet, the silks, and the wall decoration.
The year is 1823. R. J. Tyers submits a patent for roller skates; Charles Macintosh of Scotland starts selling raincoats, or ‘macs’; Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ‘A Visit From St Nicholas’ was first published; and the composer Gioachino Rossini premieres his opera Semiramide in Venice. King George IV holds a ‘Grand Musical Party’ in the Music Room at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, and Rossini performs as part of the evening’s festivities. This rounds off a busy year for George; he has already overseen the completion of work on the Saloon at his Royal Pavilion.
The Saloon is a unique room at the Royal Pavilion, as it has never changed size or position in the building. Originally, the room would have been used as a main reception room for particularly high-ranking guests: this room is where George would have greeted Princes, Princesses, Dukes, Duchesses. It was also used as a reception room before dinner. When George entered the room, gentlemen were already standing, and ladies would have stood up as he entered. The Saloon would also have been used as a small recital room. An able player of the violoncello and piano, and renowned for his bass voice, George was a keen musician. He enjoyed giving small performances for his guests, playing catches and glees (popular songs of the time). The fabulous carpet in the Saloon would also been rolled back and the room used for small dances, with ‘devices of dragons’ chalked on the floor. The dragons chalked on the floor served a triple purpose: complementing the dragon imagery in the room (and around the rest of the Royal Pavilion), providing a pattern to follow whilst dancing, and enabling people to grip the floor whilst dancing.
So, why has the room been restored? In 2002, water penetration in to the southern apse (the half dome over the door) came through the painted sky ceiling. The water penetration revealed a stylized silver leaf shape from a previous decorative scheme: Robert Jones’ decorative scheme from 1823. The decision was made to go all-out and attempt a full restoration of the room to return the Saloon to how it would have looked when Robert Jones completed his design for George IV in 1823. The restoration was funded from a number of sources, including donations from the public and Royal Pavilion and Museums Patrons and Members as well as grants from The Monuments Trust, The Mercer’s Company, The Georgian Group (F.E. Cleary Fund), The J. Paul Getty Jr. Charitable Trust, The Pebble Fund, the Royal Pavilion and Museums Foundation, and the Royal Pavilion and Museums.
‘I can’t believe I’m allowed to walk on it!’ is a common exclamation from visitors when they enter the Saloon and see the vibrantly coloured carpet. In the centre of the carpet is a sunflower within a yellow star; the one hundred rays of the star radiate out from the sunflower to the border of the carpet. There is a circular border of twenty dragons, flowers and stars, a second border of leaves and flowers, and, at the very edge of the carpet, an outer border of two hundred and seventy four lotus leaves.
Two large imperial or fenghuang birds, on a sea green background, can be seen on the carpet, one in each doorway. The border of plants and leaves is botanically accurate and includes summer flowers from the gardens on the Royal Pavilion Estate. The stars depicted in the borders of the carpet are a symbol of the Knights of the Garter (a chivalric order founded by Edward III in 1348). The sunflower on the carpet – and around the room – are a symbol of unswerving devotion to a member of royalty. The dragons on the carpet have associations with the story of St George slaying the dragon, and are also symbols of power.
The original carpet was made by Thomas Witty of Axminster, cost £620, and was one of three famous hand-knotted carpets that were supplied to the Royal Pavilion by Axminster. The other two Axminster carpets were in the Banqueting Room and the Music Room. The carpet in the Saloon, like many other valuable items in the Royal Pavilion, was removed by Queen Victoria when she cleared the building in 1847. The Saloon carpet was cut in to pieces, and the pieces were used either to furnish rooms in other royal residences or handed out as gifts.
The recreation the carpet in the Saloon required a lot of research by Anne Sowden, the Royal Pavilion’s textiles consultant. Parts of the original Saloon carpet do survive, such as the one that was returned on loan by George V in 1934; this was tracked down and studied. Two coloured designs for the carpet survive, one of which was only discovered in 2005. Descriptions from archival sources also assisted in the recreation of the design for the Saloon carpet. The design work for the replica carpet took over a year before it was sent to Axminster Carpets, who had been commissioned to recreate the carpet (a nice touch, as they made the original carpet 195 years ago). Anne Sowden created an intricate, line drawn and painted pattern, which Axminster translated on to their looms to support the weaving process. Digitisation of the carpet design took a further six months.
There are twelve colours in the carpet, which meant the weaver working on the replica had to swap looms, as their loom only held eleven colours. There are 64 tufts of carpet per square inch, and sixteen million tufts in the whole carpet. The carpet is made from the fleeces of eighty sheep from a mixture of breeds including Cheviot, Blackface, and Welsh. The replica carpet is designed to be very hard-wearing, and is expected to last approximately ten years.
Silk has been used on the wall panels, drapery, and upholstery in the Saloon. The design of the silk is known as ‘His Majesty’s Geranium and Gold Silk’. Only fragments of the original silk survive, so the task of recreating the silk required a lot of research and investigation. The design for the silk that visitors see in the Saloon today is based on historic written inventories of the room and watercolour reference views of the room as it looked in 1823. These included descriptions of a ‘bird motif’, ‘rosettes’, and ‘ferns’.
Richard Humphries at Humphries Weaving was able to find a black and white photograph in the company archive which matched the written descriptions. This was a photograph of a later copy of the design made by Warner & Sons in 1911. The discovery of the photograph in the archive at Humphries Weaving led to them getting the commission to re-draw and recreate the design. Several other chance discoveries in 2015 also assisted with the recreation of the silks in the Saloon. This included the discovery of an early nineteenth century woven sample of the silk in the back of a copy of The Merchant’s Sample Book of 1764 at the Victoria and Albert Museum (T373-1972). A fragment of silk removed from a chair in Buckingham Palace in 1976 was also rediscovered. Research also uncovered an original sample in the archives of Tassinari et Chatel in Paris.
The finished silks in the Saloon weigh thirty six kilograms, and if laid out flat, would cover five hundred and twenty square metres in silk tissue. The silks also used approximately four thousand miles of silk thread in the warp alone. For comparison, from Brighton…
- Chicago is 3,980 miles away
- Indianapolis is 4019 miles away
- Minneapolis is 4049 miles away
- New Delhi is 4187 miles away
- Nairobi is 4196 miles away
- and San Juan, Puerto Rico is 4198 miles away.
The pattern on the walls of the saloon is a recurring leaf and flower motif; this leaf and flower unfurls over the walls a total of twelve thousand times. Robert Jones’ original design for the walls was rendered in pearl white and silver, and is unique in his oeuvre – he does not seem to have used it anywhere else in any of his interior design schemes. In combination with the large mirrors it enabled Jones to explore reflective surfaces within the room. The silver on the walls was designed to complement the bold colours on the silks and carpet, and the brightness of the gold.
In the restoration, platinum has been used, with pale lilac used to create the shadows on each individual leaf. The shape was stenciled on to the walls, and then the colour and platinum was applied. Platinum was used instead of silver for two main reasons. Firstly, after exposure to the air, silver tarnishes and blackens, which would have required the walls to be re-silvered at a later date; and secondly, at the time work began on the walls, platinum was cheaper than silver. With each leaf and flower motif taking between fifteen and twenty minutes to paint, it took three members of staff two years to complete the recurring pattern on the walls.
‘Goodness me!’ My response to the Saloon restoration
As followers of my blog will know, I began my new role as a Visitor Services Officer at the Royal Pavilion and Brighton Museums back in June (it seems rather a long time ago now!). This meant I was able to see the end of the major restoration project and the opening of the Saloon to the public in my first couple of months. Every week saw new additions to the room, from the arrival of Robert Jones’ original chairs from the Royal Collection to the installation of the tripod bowl (or pot pourri stand). The ‘wow’ moment for me was seeing the carpet after it had been laid, with the sunflower motif visible in the centre of the room, now obscured by the seat. As an art historian I have really enjoyed learning about the processes behind the recreation of items like the carpet and the silks, and being able to share my new found knowledge with all of our lovely visitors. It’s also been fascinating to see how truth to the original design and a desire to preserve the room for the future works in practice in a historic house.
Want to find out more about the Saloon?
If this blog post has piqued your interest, you can explore a three hundred and sixty degree view of the room on the Brighton Museums website here.
You can also find out more about the restoration of the Saloon by watching this short video of David Beevers, Keeper of the Royal Pavilion speaking about the room.
The best way to experience the Saloon is, of course, to visit it! I hope you are able to stop by soon, and my colleagues and I look forward to talking to you more about the Saloon (and the rest of our wonderful palace, too!).