Colour in the Royal Pavilion

Detail of the Banqueting Room in the 1820s
Detail of the Banqueting Room in the 1820s

Why were the original interiors of the Royal Pavilion so brightly coloured?

Clear tints of primary colours were in vogue in the early 19th century. The fashion for this colourful palette distinguished the Regency period from the pale neo-classical decorations favoured by the previous generation. The use of colour was inspired by the arts of China, which were admired and collected by George IV.

His English decorators echoed the range of colours seen in Chinese export paintings, wallpapers, ceramics and silks, exploration of antique sites in Italy and Greece had shown that classical civilisations also made extensive use of primary colours.

A detail from a handpainted Chinese export paper.
A detail from a handpainted Chinese export paper.

What colours were used?

The colours in the carpets and curtains have faded but some paintwork has survived. Minute samples from walls, woodwork and wallpaper can be studied using polarised light microscopy and the pigments identified.  More sophisticated analysis can reveal the precise molecular structure of the colour. Although many bright colours were used side by side, the overall effect was harmonious, as the juxtapositions were carefully judged. This balance was helped by the fact only a few colours were used, mainly two pigments from each of the primary colour groups.

Mythical Chinese creature Kylin, English, circa 1815
Mythical Chinese creature Kylin, English, circa 1815

Red: Vermilion

A bright, opaque, pillar box red, vermilion (made from mercury and sulphur) is the oldest man-made pigment, the manufacture of which was probably first understood in China.

Detail from one of the Music Room wall canvases, 1817-20
Detail from one of the Music Room wall canvases, 1817-20

Red: Carmine

A beautiful crimson lake made from cochineal insects found in Mexico. Carmine was an expensive colour specifically mentioned in the Royal Pavilion accounts for the decorations. Its transparency allowed it to be used as a glaze over vermilion or silver to create rich lacquer-like effects.

English hand-printed yellow dragon paper, 1817-21
English hand-printed yellow dragon paper, 1817-21

Yellow: Chrome Yellow

Advances made in chemistry at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century allowed new synthetic pigments to be made. Chrome Yellow was one of these new colours. It was used extensively in the Royal Pavilion, almost as soon as manufacture of this brilliant bright yellow began.

Yellow: Turner’s Patent Yellow

A brilliant sparkly yellow, this is another man–made pigment, based on lead. It is rarely found and is not made today. It was used sparingly in the building, so may have been difficult to make in large quantities.

A detail from an English hand-printed wallpaper from the Banqueting Room, 1817-1820
A detail from an English hand-printed wallpaper from the Banqueting Room, 1817-1820

Blue: Prussian Blue

An intense, deep colour, Prussian Blue was used for both opaque and transparent blue finishes all over the Pavilion. Prussian Blue was first made at the beginning of the 18th century in Germany by an alchemist and a colourman working together. It is regarded as the first ‘modern’ colour.

Blue: Blue Verditer

This luminous sky blue is based on copper. It was produced as a by-product during silver refining and is no longer available as a commercial pigment. The verditer found in the Pavilion is of a very high quality.

Green

Detail from an English hand-printed wallpaper from the Kings Apartments, circa 1820
Detail from an English hand-printed wallpaper from the Kings Apartments, circa 1820

Stable green colours were in short supply until later in the 19th century. Many of the greens found in the Pavilion are mixtures of Prussian Blue and yellow. A green version of verditer was also used.

Green

There is a transparent green found in the Pavilion, used as a glaze over silver. So far this green has not been identified.

2 Responses

  1. Caroline Carroll

    what a fascinating article. Was led here by another article on the possible opening of the tunnel, and have really enjoyed this brief history.

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