A ‘beautiful and splendid cabinet of the arts’ in Brighton, 200 years ago

Now that museums and galleries are reopening, we look at an early Brighton picture gallery in the Circus Street area. 

The interior of the Brighton Picture Gallery, 1823
The interior of the Brighton Picture Gallery, 1823

What cultural entertainment was available in Brighton 200 years ago? Apart from events at assembly rooms, horse racing, theatres and libraries, Brighton also had a picture gallery in the early 1820s, long before art exhibitions were held in the Royal Pavilion (from 1850) and Brighton Museum was built (1873).

This image from 1823 shows the interior of the much-praised picture gallery. 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. This development included a riding school and equestrian circus, known as the Royal Circus, opened by Messrs Kendall and Co in August 1808. An engraving from 1809 shows an impressive ninebay, threestorey structure, adorned with a large Pegasus sculpture. Wings to the north and south housed a coffee house (the beginning of Brighton café culture?), billiard rooms and a confectionery.

The [Old] Steyne and [Grand] Parade area in 1808.
The [Old] Steyne and [Grand] Parade area in 1808.
The Royal Circus and Amphitheatre in 1809
The Royal Circus and Amphitheatre in 1809

In 1819 Mr Bodicote opened a picture gallery in the building, which quickly became a meeting place for Brighton society. Having paid a oneshilling admission, or one guinea for annual membership, visitors could also read newspapers, magazines and reviews in the gallery. The engraving showing the interior appeared in several publications, including Richard Sickelmore’s book The History of Brighton (1823). He describes the gallery as a ‘beautiful and splendid cabinet of the arts…, it is decidedly unrivalled, provincially, and may be fairly classed with those of the first consequence in London.’

Fashionable visitors in Brighton Picture Gallery, 1823 [detail]
Fashionable visitors in Brighton Picture Gallery, 1823 [detail]
Fashionable visitors in Brighton Picture Gallery, 1823 [detail]
Fashionable visitors in Brighton Picture Gallery, 1823 [detail]
Indeed, the gallery looks impressive: fashionably dressed visitors can be seen flocking in, and the paintings are arranged in a style reminiscent of London’s Royal Academy summer exhibitions – hung closely and all the way to the top of each wall of the top-lit room. Pictures on levels above the eye 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 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 confirming that the great painters John Constable or JMW Turner visited the gallery, but it seems highly likely that during their extended stays in Brighton in the 1820s they would have dropped in.

Sadly, the gallery, dependent on sales of pictures, was not a commercial success, and closed in 1823, with much of the art being auctioned at Christie’s. By 1827 the building housed a ‘Bazaar’, its walls still lined with the paintings that did not get sold at the Christie’s auction. J Whittemore notes in one of his Brighton guidebooks that ‘although we lament the alterations [the building] has undergone, we are gratified to perceive that in its present state, it affords an hour’s amusement to the numerous fashionable visitors.’ A tiny engraving shows a building that seems to have been refaced, with the wings gone. Sadly, no trace of it remains today, but the area around Circus Street has recently undergone extensive development, and Brighton University’s School of Art borders the area, which is a rather nice coincidence.

Alexandra Loske

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