It’s difficult to imagine Brighton without the Royal Pavilion, its most iconic building. But there was a time in the 1840s – when Queen Victoria chose not to retain it as her seaside residence – that its future was in real doubt. Offered for sale by the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Woods and Forests, it was bought by and for the people of Brighton on 19 June 1850.
The purchase was not unopposed, however: according to one commentator, the Pavilion was ‘a great, ugly, indescribable building…which is at once a monument of the vices and detestable taste of the Fourth George’ and, for many, it did indeed symbolise the excesses and extravagances of his reign. Fortunately, there were also plenty of people who thought it worth preserving and, here at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, we benefit on a daily basis from the transformation of one of the former monarch’s ambitious schemes, the opulent Royal Stables and Riding House.
Work began on these buildings in around 1803 and they were completed in 1808, providing the catalyst for John Nash’s flamboyant reinvention of the Royal Pavilion. Architect William Porden was responsible for their design, and it seems the Prince of Wales, a keen horseman, was delighted with the results. The stables themselves, inspired by the circular Corn Market in Paris, featured a vast central dome and palatial accommodation for more than sixty horses. There were also coach houses, an engine house, forge and farrier, harness rooms and, on the upper floor, lodgings for grooms and stable boys. To one side of the stables was the Riding House, complete with Royal Box; to the other was a screen behind which a tennis court was planned. To quote a member of the Prince’s entourage, it was ‘a most superb edifice, indeed quite unnecessarily so’.
In 1856, after the change to municipal ownership, the Stables and Riding House were let as cavalry barracks for a number of years and, in 1868, the Riding House was renamed the Corn Exchange and used for the weekly corn market. A year earlier, the Dome, as the Stables became known, had opened as a magnificent concert and assembly hall. According to Clifford Musgrave’s Royal Pavilion: An Episode in the Romantic, ‘the use of the buildings of the Estate for cultural purposes was strongly in the minds of the municipality from the time they purchased it. Art exhibitions were held in the Kitchen [of the Royal Pavilion], and rooms on the first floor…were used as a museum and reference library. These were so successful that greater space was soon needed.’ The tennis courts planned as part of Porden’s original scheme were never developed; instead, extra stabling for Queen Adelaide had been created on the site in the 1830s and it was in this space that the town’s new Public Library, Art Gallery and Museum opened in 1873. This was further enlarged and remodelled in 1902, prompting philanthropist Henry Willett to present his substantial collections of paintings and English pottery to the town. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Kate Elms, Brighton History Centre