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The Dragon’s in the detail: designs for the Royal Pavilion by John and Frederick Crace

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Before we had to temporarily close our doors due to the Covid-19 virus, I was busy preparing a display showcasing the work of two of George IV’s principal designers, or interior decorators, at the Royal Pavilion.

This exhibition, which was due to open in May 2020 at Brighton Museum, is now delayed. This doesn’t stop me giving you a bit of a taste of what is to come: delicate drawings, daring designs, colourful enamels, porcelain, wallpaper and any number of dragons. Here is the first of these visual appetisers.

The Royal Pavilion’s extremely colourful and ornate interiors make it the most exotic looking of all royal buildings in this country and quite possibly the whole of Europe.

It is easy to forget that these large-scale and ambitious design schemes all began with small and intricate drawings and designs. The Royal Pavilion is a great example of interior decoration becoming a genre in its own right in the early nineteenth century, quite separate from architecture.

The architect John Nash, responsible for the Pavilion’s distinctive Indian and Gothic exterior look from 1815 onwards, had little to do with the interiors. Instead George employed designers John Crace (1754–1819) and his son Frederick Crace (1779–1859) from 1802. They were later joined by the hugely creative Robert Jones (active 1815–1835) about whom we sadly know very little.

We do know a lot about the Craces though. The family Messrs Crace & Sons worked at the Royal Pavilion between 1802 and 1823, and further redecoration and restoration work was carried out by John Dibblee Crace (Frederick’s grandson) in the 1880s and 1890s until the firm folded in 1899.

A drawing by Frederick Crace, c1815, based on a plate in William Alexander’s The Costume of China (1805).

A significant collection of Crace drawings relating to the Pavilion is in the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York but we are very lucky to have around 230 loose sketches and an important complete sketchbook in our collection. Most of these drawings are attributed to Frederick Crace but it is hard to be precise about this and only very few are dated. Some of these drawings and the objects that inspired them were going to be shown in a new exhibition in the Prints & Drawings Gallery of Brighton Museum in early May. This is now delayed  but we are able to show you some of the objects in this blog post.

I am curating the Crace exhibition with conservator and artist Gordon Grant, who has been working on the restoration of the Pavilion interiors for many years and has a real eye for ornamental detail. We have already finalised our selection for the display, and our intention was to make new links between some of the drawings and specific parts of the Pavilion interiors.

A detail from a plate in William Alexander’s book The Costume of China (1805)

The highly detailed and brightly coloured design drawings reveal the Craces often copied directly from decorations on Chinese porcelain, wallpaper, Canton enamels and embroidered textiles with little deviation from the original colour schemes. They also used printed sources such as the books published by the artist William Alexander (1767 – 1816) who accompanied the Macartney Embassy to China in the 1790s.

In some cases there is a direct line from the original source via the Crace drawings to the final ornamental detail in the Pavilion. An example is in this sketch of Chinese mythological beasts, which the Craces lifted from a plate published by William Alexander in 1805 showing a scene inside a Chinese temple. These motifs would eventually appear in adapted form on laylights upstairs in the Pavilion. It just goes to show that it is worth looking at the detail, whether you are searching for the devil, dragons, Foo-hum birds or grotesque beasts.

Alexandra Loske, Curator, Royal Pavilion

You can see a digitised copy of William Alexander’s book The Costume of China in our Tales from the Pavilion Archives.