No crouching tigers, but many hidden dragons

A while ago I wrote an article for Viva Brighton Magazine about the largest object in the Royal Pavilion, the magnificent Dragon Chandelier in the Banqueting Room, designed by the mysterious and elusive artist Robert Jones, one of the principal interior decorators of the Pavilion, responsible for many of the final designs after 1815.

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But there are many more dragons in the building, and I would like to draw attention to other, rarely seen or noticed ones, which were also designed by Jones. Dragons are one of the most popular motifs in the decorative schemes of the Pavilion interiors and can be found in two- or three-dimensional form in almost every room in the building. Most of these dragons are the creations of European designers and bear little resemblance to this most powerful and positive of Chinese mythological creatures. However, they are charming and playful designs that give us an insight into the creative minds of George IV’s designers, who were trying to conjure up a vision of the Far East for their patron in the early 19th century.

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In the Red Drawing Room, the first room to the right off the Green Entrance Hall, Jones included dragons in the pattern of the so-called Dragon Wallpaper, which was inspired by Chinese Imperial robes and painted by hand in white on a rich vermilion red ground with a glaze of transparent carmine. These wallpaper dragons are stylised and easily visible, and George IV liked the pattern so much that he asked for it to be repeated as a block-printed version in different colours (green and yellow) in other rooms of the Pavilion. But in the Red Drawing Room Jones also sneaked in other, more subtle, dragons, that would reveal themselves to visitors only on close inspection, or perhaps by chance. Once you have spotted them you see them everywhere and you look around the room in search of more delightful discoveries. These dragons are painted into the woodgrain effect of all doors and wood-panelled surfaces, such as window casements, shutters and skirting boards. Small dragons or snake-like, phantastical creatures emerge from paint surfaces that imitate satinwood. They are full of movement, fluid even, and give a vivid impression how they were created, with the artist’s brush wandering, painting a first tentative little creature, then more and more.

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Woodgraining, marbling and trompe l’oeil effects were popular features in eighteenth and nineteenth century interior decorating. By means of painting artists imitated other, usually more precious, materials and surfaces, such as marble or exotic woods. In the Pavilion, a building that plays with your senses by incorporating optical illusions, imitations and oriental phantasy worlds, we find many of these pretend surfaces, skilfully executed by the Craces, Robert Jones and their assistants. Pink marbled surfaces, for example, are found in the niches of the Long Gallery, while imitation bamboo is dotted around the entire building. Nowhere though is the technique of woodgraining executed so playfully and effectively as in the Red Drawing Room.

20150310_161257We cannot say for certain whether Jones himself painted the dozens of squirming dragons into the woodgrain of this room, but it is likely that his brush indeed “wandered” and painted a first dragon, possible with no intention to make this a design feature. An apocryphal story claims that George IV saw Jones doing this and was so delighted by the creatures that he ordered him to include them everywhere in the room. It is a lovely story, but there is no evidence that this happened. Very little is known about the important figure Robert Jones, but some of his Pavilion accounts survive. These confirm that he worked extensively on the Red Drawing Room decorations between 1820 and 1822, but no mention is made of the hidden dragons in the woodgraining, only generic references to the richness of the design scheme, the quality of the pigments used, and the highly decorated and varnished surfaces. Unlike the Dragon Wallpaper, which is a 20th century reproduction, the wooden surfaces in this room are largely original. In the mid-19th century many of them were covered in a brown copal varnish, but these dark layers were beginning to be removed in the 1920s, revealing Robert Jones’ delightful dragons once again.

Red Drawing Room photo

The Red Drawing Room is not on the normal visitor route through the building, but is used for special events and occasions, including wedding ceremonies.

Dr Alexandra Loske, Art Historian and Curator

Further resources