Over the last fifty years, millions of pounds and hours have been invested on the Pavilion to restore it to its original glory as it was perceived by Brighton’s very own party animal Prince Regent.
And yet when does restoration become something else – when does it become a piece of art in its own right?
It was a question I found myself wondering when I talk to Gordon Grant, a conservator at the RP&M for over 40 years. When I first met him, I was told he was the man who painted the wallpaper in Queen Victoria’s rooms. As these rooms are some of my favourites in the Pav, I really wanted to find out about them.
Grant, 63, is not a man to brag about his achievements. In fact, he spent a lot of time telling me about some of the amazing people he’d had the pleasure to work with and learn from, in an attempt to deflect attention from himself.
Yet, it’s clear Gordon has been a huge influence on the look of the Pavilion during his work there, which has been as freelance and on staff.
But his legacy – the Queen Vic’s wall-hangings are works of art in their own right, in my opinion, although Gordon would probably not brag like that.
‘I’m just a tiny cog,’ he says. ‘I’ve picked up the techniques of other artists. I work in the style of.. rather than my own.
‘I suppose my legacy is that this work is designed to last for the long term, a couple of hundred years more because we’re producing at such a high standard.’
Queen Victoria’s wallhangings
The history of the wall-hangings is a complicated one. They were installed by Queen Victoria, who quickly decided she didn’t get enough privacy in Brighton and decamped to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. She stripped the place pretty bare, taking the hand-painted Chinese wall-hangings with her to Buckingham Palace.
She later returned part of the paper to the Pavilion and kept one in Buckingham Palace but neither made up a complete set.
In the 1980s Gordon was given the task of recreating the wall-hangings for the refurbished Queen Victoria’s rooms. ‘It was a matter of reconstructing the design again. So much of it exists but it is in bits and pieces. The Chinese style was very fashionable in the late 18th century so there were other examples. I had to travel to ensure I made it as accurate as possible.
‘The colours of the 1980s replica were based on off-cuts of the original paper that had been kept out of the light and so hadn’t faded.
‘The real Chinese wall-hangings would be painted by several people, giving them a charming disconnect and a lack of unity. I spent months working on the techniques I would use such as the colour washes and paint mixes. On the whole it was extremely enjoyable to be working away for days on end but sometimes I’d wonder if I could face painting yet another leaf, for example.’
Over a two year period, in which he did work on other projects, Gordon handpainted the elaborate scene of lavish flowers, tropical birds and exotic fauna against a bright yellow background. They are now a brilliant, lavish flash of colour which recreate what Queen Victoria would have seen when she woke every morning.
Throughout his career with the Royal Pavilion and Museums, Gordon’s work has involved a range of decorative art, gilding and repairing many of the beautiful items in the collection.
What is conservation?
Gordon explained the difference between conservation and restoration. ‘Conservation is to preserve historic material. The aim is to keep them as they are, although this may involve some intervention, for example to strengthen something which is disintegrating.
‘Restoration is recreating an aspect of an object and space, which can sometimes be seen as “not ethically proper to do.”‘ However, as the Pavilion was left by Queen Vic with very little but bare walls, there has been a lot of restoration in order to show it as it once was.
Gordon’s work though is very much as an artist – although his knowledge is far deeper than those creating their own work. While he says he is ‘no historian’, he clearly has a deep knowledge and love for the Royal Pavilion.
Just walking around the Pavilion with Gordon, his enthusiasm for the building and the artwork is fascinating and his depth of knowledge incredible.
Much of a conservator’s work is out of hours when the public are not in the buildings as a lot of the areas which need the most work are those which are most used by the public.
‘There is a feeling of never getting to grips with the work. It is hard to keep up with everything which needs doing. But it would be a shame to close it to the public to do the repairs and restoration. The Pavilion is a building which has always worked hard as a public space and it should remain so. We’re lucky we’ve always had such a lot of support from the city council to keep the Pavilion open.’
His work involves conserving decorative works with an understanding of painting surfaces, and understanding how the work and the paper will age over time. He had no knowledge however of just how much time he’d end up devoting to Brighton’s museum collections.
‘I thought I’d only be here for about a year,’ admits Grant. ‘I have worked at other places too but I keep coming back here. I’m retired now but come back to work on projects if there is a staff shortage.
‘But I worked with a lovely man Roy Bradley who inspired such loyalty and taught me such a lot, I wanted to stay. And this place is so extraordinary and a wonderful place to work. It’s a pleasure to come here.’
Caroline Sutton, Blogger in Residence
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- Learn more about conservation work in the Royal Pavilion
- Learn about the colours used in the Royal Pavilion
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