Of Palaces and Princes: The Royal Collection in Brighton

In September 2019, over 120 items returned to the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, on loan from the Royal Collection. These items are part of the exhibition, ‘A Prince’s Treasure: From Buckingham Palace to the Royal Pavilion’. For many of these items it is the first time they have been seen in their original setting since 1847. In this blog post, I’ll explore why these spectacular objects left the Royal Pavilion 172 years ago, before picking out a selection of my favourite items in the exhibition.

Walking along the seafront on a sunny – but breezy – autumnal morning it is easy to understand why three successive monarchs came to stay in the town. The clear sunshine, the crashing waves, the smell of fish, the screech of gulls, and the sounds of shops opening for business enrich the atmosphere of a town that’s salty, shifty, and unabashedly itself. George IV, William IV, and Queen Victoria all enjoyed their visits to the seaside, with all three monarchs taking up residence at the Royal Pavilion for several months at a time. But what is the Royal Pavilion? What on earth is an Oriental fantasy palace doing in a British seaside town now better known for Hen Parties, Pride, and Quadrophenia?

The east front of the Royal Pavilion, from John Nash’s Views of the Royal Pavilion (1826)

The Royal Pavilion that we see in Brighton today is the creation of George IV, working in close collaboration with his architects and interior designers. George had first visited Brighton in 1783 at the tender age of 21, when he was Prince of Wales. His visit was made on the recommendation of his doctors, who suggested that the health benefits of the waters at Brighton would help to relieve his gout. During his first visit to Brighton, young George stayed with his uncle, Prince Henry, the Duke of Cumberland at Grove House. Henry shared George’s interest in fine cuisine, gambling, theatre, and high living. Needless to say George enjoyed his first visit to the town so much he returned, renting a small mansion in the Steine area of Brighton, on the site of the current Pavilion building. Eventually George bought the building, known as the Marine Pavilion, and the surrounding land.

Thomas Lawrence, George IV, Seated in Morning Dress, 1820-1. Oil on canvas. FA000026. © Royal Pavilion & Museums Brighton and Hove.

After purchasing the Marine Pavilion, George began an extensive remodelling and renovation project in 1787, working with architect Henry Holland to improve the ‘modest farmhouse’ into a neo-classical building at the very height of fashion. Between 1815 and 1822, the architect John Nash began work to convert Henry Holland’s neo-classical exterior into the Indo-Saracenic style building we see today. This shows the influence of prints, paintings and watercolours produced by artists such as Thomas and William Daniell and William Hodges in the Regency period. These images depicted the landscapes, buildings, and peoples of the Indian subcontinent. They were produced at a time when travel to India, modern Pakistan, and Afghanistan was becoming ‘safer’ for British travellers and artists. This meant images of these places were, gradually, becoming more common in Britain.

The current design scheme inside the Pavilion could not be more different. After shedding their coats in the Entrance Hall, George’s guests would walk in to the Long Gallery. The salmon pink walls, nodding figures, and huge Chinese porcelain vases are in direct contrast with the Entrance Hall’s calming green walls and dark wood furniture. But this is the effect George – and his interior designers, Frederick Crace and Robert Jones – wanted to have on his guests. The interiors of the Royal Pavilion are decorated in a style called ‘Chinoiserie’. Imported from Rococo France this style is eighteenth century Western art’s approximation of Chinese arts and crafts. It is a European interpretation and imitation of Chinese artistic traditions. Today, the interior of the Royal Pavilion has been restored to how it would have looked in the 1820s, after George became King.

After George’s death in 1830, his brother, William, became King. In contrast to his brother, who had become increasingly reclusive and unpopular later in life, William was a popular and affable King. Known as the ‘Sailor King’ thanks to his naval career, William regularly visited Brighton with his wife, Adelaide, staying at the Pavilion. William and Adelaide entertained at the Pavilion, inviting close friends and family. Because the Pavilion had been built for a ‘bachelor’s household’ (despite marrying twice – once illegally, once legally – George never lived with either of his wives), William had extra buildings created next to the Pavilion to house Adelaide’s ladies and staff. The contrast between George and William was not just clear in their popularity with the public or their marriages: unlike George, William and Adelaide ran a much less formal, less ceremonial household than George.

On 20 June 1837, William died. Having turned eighteen less than a month earlier, Victoria became Queen. In her diaries, she writes how:

I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen.

Victoria’s accession to the throne avoided another Regency. In October 1837, mere months after becoming Queen, Victoria made a welcome visit to Brighton, staying – like both George and William – in the Royal Pavilion. Victoria describes in her diary entry for 4 October 1837 how, when arriving in Brighton, she received the ‘most enthusiastic warm and friendly’ welcome from an ‘immense concourse’ of local people.

Victoria is widely believed to have disliked Brighton, and the Royal Pavilion. However, this simply isn’t true. Despite initially describing the Pavilion as a ‘strange, odd Chinese looking thing’ in her diary entry for 4 October, by 5 October, she expresses her admiration for her new residence, and her suite of rooms: ‘My little sitting-room is a very pretty, cheerful little room, and I have a nice little peep of the sea.’ What also comes across in her diaries is her immense enjoyment of Brighton, and the Downland landscape that spreads out around the town. She writes of going for rides out to Stanmer and visiting Kemptown (which, if you’re interested, she thought was ‘the prettiest part of Brighton’). Victoria enjoyed walks along the Chain Pier and buying trinkets from the vendors on the seafront. Her diary entries for the early 1840s include her first visit to the Pavilion with Albert, their joint appreciation of the design and craftsmanship within the Pavilion, and walks along the newly created Undercliff Walk.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, The Royal Family in 1846, 1846. Oil on canvas. Royal Collection Trust.

However, during Victoria and Albert’s final visit to the Pavilion in 1845, it became increasingly clear that the building had become unsuitable for their needs. It was their growing family and a need to introduce increased security and privacy that led Parliament to agree to the sale of the Palace in 1846. The agreement to sell the Pavilion was made on the condition that any proceeds from the sale would be used to help finance significant refurbishment that was under way at Buckingham Palace. Victoria agreed, and the building was sold to Brighton Corporation (what is now Brighton and Hove City Council) in 1850.

Prior to the sale, Victoria had arranged to clear the Royal Pavilion of any items of value. All of the furniture and fittings were removed; from chandeliers to carpets all of the Pavilion’s contents were removed and taken up to London. Victoria was so efficient she even had the white Dutch tiles with a blue border removed from the servants’ corridors (these sat in storage in London until 1864, when they were returned to the Pavilion with a number of other items). Gradually, these items have come back to the Royal Pavilion, either on loan from the Royal Family or acquired through auction. In September 2019, the Royal Pavilion saw 120 of the items return to Brighton, on loan whilst essential maintenance work is undertaken at Buckingham Palace. Here, I’ve selected a few of my favourite items that have come back to the Pavilion as part of the loan.

Object 1: Suite of chairs, side chairs, and settee

The first objects in my selection for this blog post is the set of furniture now located in the Long Gallery. This suite of side chairs, pair of armchairs, and settee is all made from sandalwood and veneered with ivory. These objects were originally commissioned by Alexander Wynch, who was Governor of Madras between 1773 and 1775. The chairs and settee were made in Vizagapatam (now Visakhapatnam) in India, and the shapes were probably copied from existing British furniture in the area. George IV bought the chairs, armchairs, and settee at the auction of the estate of his mother, Queen Charlotte.

Read more about these objects on the Royal Collection website – click here for the set of side chairs, here for the pair of armchairs, and here for the settee.

Object 2: The ‘Kylin’ Clock

The ‘Kylin’ clock, c.1750-1800. Porcelain, and gilt bronze. Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 2867.

This elaborate clock is on display on the mantelpiece in the Saloon. It features two squatting ‘Kylins’, the one on the left has a ball under its paw and the one on the right has a cub. The clock mechanism, and clock face, are made by the clockmaker Vulliamy, and are set in to a Chinese porcelain bowl, probably cut from the shoulder of a porcelain jar. Note the Japanese Hotei figure above the clock face. Hotei is revered as a deity in some schools of Buddhism; his name directly translates as ‘cloth sack’.

Read more about the Kylin clock on the Royal Collection website here.

Object: Pagodas

The final object I’ve selected for today’s blog post are the six pagodas now located in the Music Room at the Royal Pavilion. Two of these are twelve feet high and four are fifteen and a half feet in height. The main body of each pagoda is made from porcelain, in separate pieces that are stacked up (imagine constructing a cake stand, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how they were put together). George IV ordered the pagodas from China; Dr J J Garrett, who brought them back to Britain, complained that he had an uncomfortable journey home as George’s Chinese curios took up all the space in his cabin. Spode was commissioned to create the bases, and George spent an additional £2,000 on gold embellishments for the pagodas.

Read more about  the pagodas on the Royal Collection website here.

‘A Prince’s Treasure: From Buckingham Palace to the Royal Pavilion’ is on at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton from 21 September 2019 until 30 September 2021. To find out more about the Royal Pavilion, including ticket information, head over to their website, here


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