Two worlds colliding harmoniously: a 1797 watercolour of the Steine and Royal Pavilion

This small watercolour and gouache painting from c1797 in the collection of the Royal Pavilion & Museums is by the amateur artist James Bennett (not to be confused with the Victorian oil painter of the same name), who created a number of simple but evocative images of Brighton between the 1790s and the 1810s.

James Bennett, The Steine Front of the Marine Pavilion, 1797 (FA100194)
James Bennett, The Steine Front of the Marine Pavilion, 1797 (FA100194)

Most of Bennett’s pictures focus on the seafront, but in this one the artist ventures a little bit inland, its main intention being to capture the east front of the Marine Pavilion as it was then known. It is not a hugely accomplished painting and leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to perspective and architectural accuracy, but it paints a vivid picture of Brighton in its heyday as a seaside resort.

The Pavilion as we see it here, viewed from the east side of the Steine looking west, is still more or less the architect Henry Holland’s building, created for the Prince of Wales in 1787. It has bow-fronted wings, a circular central room with a shallow dome (which still forms the roof of the Saloon but is now topped with John Nash’s large central onion-shaped dome, added in 1818) and a neo-classical colonnade. By the mid-1790s plans were being made for considerable changes and additions to the building, for example two conservatories, placed at either end of the building at roughly 45 degree angles, but these were not put in place until 1801. Instead, we can see a number of structures and ornaments that would later be obscured or demolished.

Detail of James Bennett's The Steine Front of the Marine Pavilion, 1797 (FA100194)
Detail of James Bennett’s The Steine Front of the Marine Pavilion, 1797 (FA100194)

Adorning the top of the colonnade, for example, are seven neo-classical coade stone figures. These were removed sometime between 1801 and 1804, despite the Pavilion largely retaining its neo-classical exterior until 1817. Immediately to the left and the right of the building low red-brick structures are visible. These were curved walls, essentially blocking the view of the original kitchen area to the north of building, and the house of Louis Weltje, the Clerk of the Prince of Wales’ kitchen (and much more), to the south.

Behind Weltje’s house (the one with the small shuttered windows) we can see the top of the Countess of Huntingdon’s church, first built in 1761, later rebuilt and eventually demolished in 1972. In the distance, high on a hill, is St Nicholas of Myra, the parish church. At a right angle to Weltje’s house, behind dense planting, is the original stables block, which would later be replaced by the grand Royal Stables on the north-west side of the estate (now The Dome). In the foreground on the right, pushing their way into picture, are the ‘blue-and-buff’ Georgian townhouses on the Steine, which survive to this day.

Detail of James Bennett's The Steine Front of the Marine Pavilion, 1797 (FA100194)
Detail of James Bennett’s The Steine Front of the Marine Pavilion, 1797 (FA100194)

Apart from recognisable buildings and structures this charming picture provides a glimpse into the two worlds that formed Brighton in the late 18th century: that of fashionable society and royalty, and that of the long-standing fishing industry. There are well-dressed women parading the Steine, joined by smart men on horseback. A brightly coloured horse drawn carriage is pulling up by the ‘blue-and-buffs’, and a movable royal sentry box is placed by the low fence enclosure of the eastern Pavilion lawns. Yet, we also get a sense of the messiness of Brighton, with a dog running around the Steine, the grass not manicured and fishermen’s nets casually thrown over the Steine fencing, perhaps discarded, perhaps hung there to dry.  Two worlds colliding? They seem to be merging here quite harmoniously.

This and many other lesser known and unusual images of the Royal Pavilion Estate will be shown in a new display titled Visions of the Royal Pavilion Estate at the Prints & Drawings Gallery in Brighton Museum, 14 March 2017 to 3 Sept 2017.

Alexandra Loske, Curator, Royal Pavilion Archives