The History of Brighton Museum and Library

Twentieth Century Art & Design Gallery at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery,  2008, RG001116
Twentieth Century Art & Design Gallery at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, 2008, RG001116

Although the history of the Royal Pavilion has been thoroughly researched by several writers, the history of Brighton’s unique Museum and Library has rarely been explored in detail.

On 15 August 1872, the Brighton Gazette devoted its most lyrical sentiments to the new Museum and Public Library, labelling it “the pride of Brighton”: ‘No Acts of Parliament can so well shape, fashion, or restrain men’s minds and inclination as the beautiful and true in life – we have become wealthy in a few moments as it were – rich in art, in science, in the mysteries of the world…The old stables have disappeared, the court yard, where high-mettled royal steeds have pranced, is gone, and thereon stands the metamorphosed building which is now a fit sharer in which is justly called “the pride of Brighton”.’

The site selected for the Museum and Library was in Church Street, beside the Royal Stables and Riding House (now the Dome and Corn Exchange) which were completed in 1808 by William Porden. At the lower end of Church Street Porden had built only a screen wall, with no building behind it. A tennis court was intended for this space, but never built. Instead, Jospeh Good (the architect of the North Gate) built further stables and coach houses here for Queen Adelaide in 1831. After the purchase of the Royal Pavilion Estate by the town in 1850, this area was used by the Army until 1871, when the Council resolved that a new Library, Museum, and Picture Gallery should be built on the site.


Expanding Art Collections

Design by Philip Lockwood for the Picture Gallery, c.1871. The gallery as built corresponds with design in all respects except the roof, which was constructed in the form of a shallow barrel-vault. CAIL000011.36
Design by Philip Lockwood for the Picture Gallery, c.1871. The gallery as built corresponds with design in all respects except the roof, which was constructed in the form of a shallow barrel-vault. CAIL000011.36

Art exhibitions had been held in the Great Kitchen of the Royal Pavilion since 1852, and in 1859 rooms on the first floor of the Pavilion were adapted as a museum. However, as the collections increased it became obvious that new galleries were needed. The work was directed by the Borough Surveyor, Philip Lockwood, who created an entrance which led into a small hall, at the side of which was a Post Office. At the rear of this hall was the large Picture Gallery (now the Twentieth Century design gallery) which, as the Brighton Gazette commented on 15 August 1872, ‘is the room of the building in which “Art” takes its seat’. The gallery was originally top-lit through a double roof, the lower part being glazed with ground glass.

Moderate Moresque

The Church Street frontage remained much as it had been in 1808, but Lockwood altered the windows and the main entrance, which became an archway supported by columns with ‘Moresque’ capitals. The Brighton Gazette commented on 16 November 1871: ‘The style adopted of course could be no other than that in which the Pavilion was originally conceived, though forms of a more moderate and strictly Moresque character have been maintained.’ The work cost £6,289, and was executed by the well-known Brighton builders, Cheesman & Co. The Clerk of the Works was Maurice B. Adams, later to become editor of the Building News and a successful architect in his own right. The Art Gallery was opened to the public in January 1873, and the Museum and Library eight months later.


It soon became apparent that the accommodation created by Lockwood was too small – especially when the Lending Library was opened in October 1889. Remodelling was finally begun in 1901 under the direction of F.J.C.May, Borough Surveyor, and the total cost amounted to £50,000.

Paupers and Prisoners

May’s task was to develop the site to the west of the Museum, which had been occupied since 1856 by the Brighton Board of Guardians, who were responsible for providing poor relief. When the Guardians moved out in 1892, their quarters were used as a Magistrates’ Court. The Brighton Herald of 1 November 1902 observed that ‘Brighton’s Home of Art was freed from the weekly procession of applicants for poor relief and from the proximity of the parish bread van…[but] for a while the procession of paupers was only exchanged for a procession of prisoners.’

The 'west entrance' to Brighton Library and Museum in 1905, CAIL000011.11
The ‘west entrance’ to Brighton Library and Museum in 1905, CAIL000011.11

May completely remodelled the library in a style that the Brighton Herald called ‘Persian’. Windows were encrusted with Islamic ornament and the building was surmounted by two copper domes. Two new porches provided entrances to the Library and the Dome: they were highly elaborate and fitted with splendid wrought iron gates. All the wrought iron in the building, including the remodelled staircases, was designed by May and made by W. Saunders of Kemp Town. The entrances were filled with tiling designed by George Elphick and executed by Craven Dunhill & Co. from 1894 onwards. Inside the porch were panels ‘recalling the Moorish design on the Alhambra in Spain’. The staircase and walls were lined with a geometric dado in greens and blues crowned by a rich frieze. The walls of the entrance hall were also decorated with cool green scale-pattern tiles. The screen in front of the staircase, again in the words of the Brighton Herald, ‘must represent the highest degree that faience work has reached in its application to the constructive parts of a building.’

Poisoned Arrows and Poetry

May added several new galleries to the museum. One large room was devoted to ethnography. The Brighton Herald patronisingly commented that ‘it comprises a collection of the war clubs, poisoned arrows, and more peaceful implements of savages.’ Three new exhibition galleries upstairs were given ceilings of vaguely ‘Renaissance’ plasterwork and an advanced system of top-lighting through the sides of the roof.

The new Reference Library on the first floor was admired by the Herald for its ‘specially handsome ceiling, distinguished by three glass domes. The mouldings have that Elizabethan touch that the bookworm likes to see in a library along with old calf bindings and antique bookcases.’ The Lending Library was also praised. When the borrower presented a ticket, ‘the attendant presses a pedal; a wicket gate opens and admits him into a charmed circle, where he can roam at will up and down shelves marked “Theology”…”History”….”Poetry”.’

Critical responses 


 The Church Street frontage of Brighton Library, Art Gallery and Museum, as it appeared c1905, CAIL000011.08
The Church Street frontage of Brighton Library, Art Gallery and Museum, as it appeared c1905, CAIL000011.08

The new Library and Museum was opened on 5 November 1902, and although the Library has since switched venues, the design of the Museum in Church Street has remained substantially intact. Modern critics have questioned the building’s architectural worth: Goodhart-Rendel, writing in the Architect and Building News in 1933, remarked that ‘The eastern style…began by Porden, and luxuriated in by Nash…re-appeared, in a rather repellent form, to take possession of the Public Library and Art Gallery.’ Today, perhaps, we are better able to appreciate the architecture of the Museum and Library, and to declare, with the Brighton Herald of 1902, that ‘it adds yet another to the varieties of oriental architecture of which the Pavilion estate is in itself quite a museum.’

2 Responses

  1. JNV

    Jan Kemp was a Dutch captain who sailed many times from Holland to London with cargo.
    In 1819 however he brought back “a real English manufactured, made in England bathing machine ” He says in an advert in 1819
    He started this way the tourism in Noordwijk Holland.
    And with a 200 hundred year celebration next year it would be nice to know more.
    I suspect it was in an other place he visited , he bought his bathing machine .
    Yarmouth and Norwich were places he visited , but it is a needle in a haystack.
    I like to find out more about the buying or ordering or exporting of bathing machines as I can’t find any adverts in the newspaper so maybe you can help me out or directing me or send this email to
    There were bathing machines everywhere but there is not much left for information in a museum or even in the archives..

    • kevinbacon


      I don’t think we have anything here on the construction or sale of bathing machines, but it may be worth checking the archive collections at the Keep:



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