John Constable and Brighton’s ‘beautiful and splendid cabinet of the arts’

As part of our Regency Season of exhibitions and events, we have been looking at life in Brighton in the early 1800s. In this post, Royal Pavilion curator Alexandra Loske looks at an early picture gallery that may have been visited by painter John Constable, the star of our current Constable and Brighton exhibition in Brighton Museum.

I have been interested in the various forms of entertainment available in our city in the early 19th century. Apart from events at assembly rooms, horse races, theatres and libraries, Brighton also had at least one significant picture gallery in the 1820s, long before art exhibitions were held in the Royal Pavilion (from 1850) and Brighton Museum was built (1873).

Brighton Picture Gallery, 1823

This image from 1823 shows the interior of the much praised picture gallery that Constable is likely to have visited during his time in Brighton. It stood at what is now roughly the area between Circus Street and Grand Parade, a plot of land that was developed between 1806 and 1808. It included the building of a riding school known as the Royal Circus, which was opened by Messrs Kendall and Co in August 1808. An engraving from the following year shows an impressive nine bay, three storey structure, with a large Pegasus sculpture placed on top. Wings to the north and south housed a coffee house, billiard rooms, and a confectionery.

Royal Circus and Ampitheatre, 1809

By the early 1820s the building had become a picture gallery and social meeting place where visitors, having paid a shilling admission, could also read newspapers, magazines and reviews. The engraving showing the interior appeared in Richard Sickelmore’s popular book The History of Brighton (1823). He describes the gallery as a ‘beautiful and splendid cabinet of the arts…  As a public exhibition, the Dulwich gallery excepted, it is decidedly unrivalled, provincially, and may be fairly classed with those of the first consequence in London.’

Brighton Picture Gallery, 1823 [detail]
The gallery looks impressive: fashionably dressed visitors can be seen flocking in, and the paintings arranged in a style reminiscent of the Royal Academy summer exhibitions – hung closely and all the way to the top of each wall of the top-lit, 95 feet high room. Pictures on levels above the coveted eye line (referred to as ‘on the line’) are slightly tilted, for better visibility. In the early years after its opening, Brighton Museum displayed paintings in the same way.

The list of artists shown at the Grand Parade gallery was surprisingly international, comprising Dutch, Flemish, Italian, German, Spanish and French masters, among them Parmigiano, Veronese, Caravaggio, Poussin, Ruysdael, Mengs, Hogarth, Gainsborough and others, as well as ‘the finest collection of De Loutherbourg’s work extant’.  There are no records that confirm that Constable visited the gallery, but it seems highly likely that during his extended stays in Brighton in the 1820s he would have dropped in to see the impressive display of high quality art.

By 1826 the gallery had been turned into a ‘Bazaar’ and J Whittemore notes in one of his Brighton guides that ‘although we lament the alterations it has undergone, we are gratified to perceive that in its present state, it affords an hour’s amusement to the numerous fashionable visitors, who honour it with their presence.’ The author also mentions that some paintings by foreign artists are still displayed in the building. A tiny engraving in Whittemore’s book shows a building that appears to have been refaced completely, with the additional wings gone. Sadly, no trace of it remains today.

Sickelmore’s book with the interior view of the picture gallery will be on display in the Jane Austen by the Sea exhibition, which opens in the Royal Pavilion on 17 June 2017.

Alexandra Loske, Curator, Royal Pavilion Archives

Note: a version of this article was previously published in Viva Brighton.

More informaton