Grateful George’s horse bling: the Brighton Cup up-close

Curator Alexandra Loske on the Brighton Cup, a trophy that’s currently on display in Brighton Museum, and how George IV supported horse racing in Brighton.

It is well known that George IV was a connoisseur of all things bling and beautiful. The Royal Pavilion boasts one of the most spectacular and valuable collections of silver-gilt in the country, most of it displayed in and next to the Banqueting Room.

One piece, the ‘Brighton Cup’, has a very special connection with George, and has been moved to the Prints & Drawings Gallery in Brighton Museum for the exhibition All the King’s Horses, which explores George’s obsession with all things equestrian. This is a rare opportunity to see this magnificent object up-close, from a different angle, newly cleaned, and without the distraction of all the other exciting objects in the Pavilion. It also gives us an opportunity to tell its story.

The large vase-shaped lidded Brighton Cup is made from solid silver covered with a thin layer of gold (‘silver-gilt’). . Made by John Emes for the royal goldsmiths Rundell, Bridge and Rundell in 1804.

Racing at Brighton began in 1783, the same year George first visited the town, as a young prince of 21. Although well known, the Brighton track initially struggled to make money. A small group of keen wealthy supporters including the Earl of Egremont and the Duke of Richmond supported it financially. The first grandstand, seen in Thomas Rowlandson’s print below (top right), was built in 1788, and it is likely that the races were one of the main reasons George was attracted to the area.

The large vase-shaped lidded Brighton Cup is made from solid silver covered with a thin layer of gold (‘silver-gilt’). It was commissioned by George (when Prince of Wales) in 1804 as a trophy for the Brighton Races of 30 July 1805. Fittingly, it is topped by the Prince of Wales’ feathers, which we also see on the east front of the Pavilion and in many other locations in the building.

Made by John Emes for the royal goldsmiths Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, the cup cost George more than £157. On one side a plaque depicts a view of the Royal Pavilion in its early stage, a neo-classical building designed by Henry Holland, on the other side the figure of Victory presents a laurel wreath to the winner of a classical horse race (with nude riders!).

As luck would have it, the 1805 Brighton Races were won by George’s own horse Orville, a famous racehorse which he had bought less than a year earlier from Christopher Wilson. George could hardly present the cup to himself and was so grateful to Wilson that he decided to give it to him instead, as a mark of his pleasure at the success of Orville. He duly inscribed it ‘The Gift of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to Chris. Wilson’. The cup remained in the Wilson family until 1952, when it was acquired by the Royal Pavilion with the help of the Art Fund. Even its original case survives, which was too large to include in the exhibition (see below).

Original case of the Brighton Cup

There is another extraordinary object in our collection that relates to the cup, and it is currently displayed next to it: A letter to Christopher Wilson at Newmarket, written by George himself, at the Royal Pavilion on 28 October 1804, complete with the royal seal. In it a grateful George thanks Wilson for selling him the Orville:

‘I can not help writing you a line, to thank you for letting me become the [purchaser] of Orville. I assure You I am most sensible of your kind attention to me on this as well as on all other [occasions?].’ He adds that ‘that there is always [a] good cheer at the Pavilion, & that there is always a hearty welcome ready for you there or at Carlton House.’

Letter from George IV (when Prince of Wales) to Christopher Wilson, 28 October 1804

 

Alexandra Loske, Curator, Royal Pavilion Archives

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