19th Century Reactions to the Interior of the Royal Pavilion

 “It enchants the senses, and excites…”

There is no shortage of visual and written records from the early to mid-19th century documenting and describing the interior of the Royal Pavilion. Nash’s detailed Views, accompanied in a later edition by Brayley’s text, requisition and account books, such as the Crace ledger, inventories and Royal letters provide us with a rounded picture of George IV’s most extravagant design project. But what was available to the general public in those early days? What picture did Brighton guidebooks and historical accounts paint of the unusual interior of the Royal residence? What were their authors’ reactions and did attitudes to the palace’s lavish decorative scheme change after the Pavilion became the property of the town in 1850?

Whittemore Banqueting Room
Whittemore Banqueting Room

The earliest handbooks and travel guides, aimed at visitors to the fashionable resort, such as Walker’s Brighton and its Environs and Attree’s Topography of Brighton from 1809 include only brief descriptions of the Pavilion and tend to rate the building’s interior more highly than the exterior. In the anonymous Three Grand Routes from Brighton to London from 1815 the author states that the interior “never fails to excite the most rapturous astonishment; but the exterior, though it may please for the moment, possesses nothing very strikingly grand to surprise or interest.” This is not surprising, since John Nash had not yet lavishly remodelled the exterior and it would have been eclipsed by William Porden’s recently finished Rotunda. Many pre-1820 reactions to the interior are extremely positive and express awe and wonder, with Walker comparing it to a “fairyland” and declaring it to be of the “most exquisite and superb style.” Wright, the author of the Brighton Ambulator (1818), attests to the “internal beauties and embellishments of this delightful residence”, but adds that owing to the unfinished state of the banqueting hall and music room “it is impossible to do justice to the magnificence of the taste and style displayed in the principle apartments.”

Whittemore Music gallery
Whittemore Music gallery

From 1815 to the late 1820s the historian Richard Sickelmore provides detailed descriptions of the evolving decorative scheme. His Epitome of Brighton (1815), the History of Brighton (1823), which was extremely popular, and Descriptive Views of Brighton (1824) all include an account of the main rooms of the Pavilion. His contemporaries Brayley and Whittemore both refer to Sickelmore as the definitive source of information and do little but paraphrase his description in Topographical Sketches of Brighthelmston and Picture of Brighton (both published in 1825). The sense of awe and wonder continues to be expressed in all his publications; for example, “it is scarcely in the power of words to convey an accurate idea of [the Pavilion’s] rich and glowing magnificence” (Sickelmore, History of Brighton and its Environs, 1827 edition, p.39). Much attention is given to the colour scheme of each individual room, from describing the tints and shades of wallpaper and carpets to emphasising the material and sheen of many decorative objects and furniture, in particular ceramics. Whittemore’s book is significant as it includes two rare images of the interior of the Pavilion, the Banqueting Room and the Music Gallery. They are reproduced as small steel engravings, based on plates from Nash’s Views. Before photographic reproduction methods in publishing, illustrations in small format publications were expensive and therefore usually limited to maps or broader topographical views. They were rarely coloured, and if they were (sometimes offered as an optional extra by the publisher), the colour would bear little resemblance to reality.

Echoing Walker, Sickelmore compares the interior to an “enchanted palace” and is reminded of the One Thousand and One Nights stories. Light, lighting, stained glass, lanterns, mirrors, and the magnificent chandeliers are rightly seen as crucial aspects of the decorative scheme. They intensify the colour scheme and enhance oriental imagery and objects, creating a magical effect. Sickelmore’s paragraph on the grand chandelier in the banqueting hall is as dazzling as the display he describes, “The lilies, when illuminated, dart their copious and vivid rays through the multiplied and sparkling tints, and influence connected objects to the semblance of rubies, pearls, glittering brilliants (sic), and shining gold—creating, if the figure may be allowed, in mid air, a diamond blaze. Its effect is magical: it enchants the senses, and excites, as it were, a feeling of spell-bound admiration in all within its radiance and circle.” This flight of fancy notwithstanding he does not omit to inform the reader that “everything here and throughout the Palace is almost entirely the work of British materials and British hands”, also suggesting that the decorative scheme illuminates national worth and should be admired by the world. Brayley copies Sickelmore in his 1825 publication almost word for word, praising “this unique, but superbly ornamented structure.” He also describes the dazzling effect of the interior, created by combining vibrant colour schemes, glossy surfaces and the extensive use of chandeliers, skylights and mirrors. The result is a “splendour of light and colour”. Brayley later provides a long, detailed and altogether more factual commentary on the interior for a Victorian reprint of Nash’s Views.[1]

Extremely positive and at times ecstatic reactions to the Pavilion’s interior continue to be the norm in guidebooks and historical accounts of Brighton throughout the 1830s and 40s. John Bruce’s History of Brighton (1833) is notable for its superlative phrases but adds little to Sickelmore’s account. However, in the same year J.D. Parry published his Historical and Descriptive Account of the Coast of Sussex, in which he attempts to interpret the iconography of some of the oriental designs. He is also the first writer to put the decorative scheme into a wider European context and provides a cultural and political justification for the money spent on the scheme.

The tone appears to change during Queen Victoria’s reign, particularly after the sale of the Pavilion to the town of Brighton in 1850. Some descriptions, as for example those by Charles Fleet in his Hand-book of Brighton (1847), are reserved and matter-of-fact. An anonymous author of Glances of Brighton (1856) rates the exterior more highly than the interior and seems somewhat at a loss describing the latter, resorting to providing the reader only with dimensions. Others are critical of some aspects of the decorative scheme. Page’s Handbook to Brighton (1877), remarks that “the colours are fresh and well selected, the subjects well chosen to portray Chinese life and customs; though the workmanship is not always faultless.” In his comprehensive History of Brighthelmston (1862), J.A. Erredge has stronger views and criticises the “reckless extravagance” displayed and considers the building not worthy of Royalty. “.. With the exception of the Chinese Gallery, and the suite of rooms which forms the east front, there was not, while it remained Royal property, a room that would content any commoner of substance … vile in taste and of meagre proportions; wholly devoid of the grandeur and nobleness which should attach itself to Royalty.”

New guides were published following the opening of the London to Brighton railway line in 1841. In The Official Illustrated Guide to the Brighton and South Coast Railways (1853) G. Measom refers to the Pavilion as “that bizarre and unintelligible pile of buildings … anomalous and insipid an idea” and states that “the interior, splendid as it was in the palmy days of George IV, only too closely corresponds in wretchedness of taste with the exterior.” Although there was no shortage of negative reactions to the Pavilion during George IV’s and William IV’s reigns, they were rarely found in handbooks or history books. The increase in very public negative responses in Victorian times seemd to reflect Victoria’s perceived dislike of the Pavilion, as well as an uncertainty about the Pavilion’s future once it became the property of the town.

Alexandra Loske, Guide and Researcher

[1] Illustrations of Her Majesty’s Palace at Brighton, London, J.B. Nichols and Son, 1838.

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