Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Royal Pavilion, Brighton: Part Three

The irony is that despite spending so much time taking photographs of the Octagon Hall from my vantage point under the West Entrance porch on the first of my two recent visits, I failed to do anything but sweep through it on the second. As a result, I never did find out what the gilded fish sculpture on display was supposed to represent. The room itself gives an inkling of the exotic interiors beyond with its canopied plaster ceiling and gilt bells. The ceiling lamp is also decorated in the Chinese style. According to my ancient guidebooks, in the 1970s  a pair of cabinets on stands, a couple of  incense burners, two figures of court officials, a side table, a pair of elbow chairs, two large 7 storey pagodas and a large mirror with an imitation bamboo frame and elbow chairs designed specifically for this room were all crammed into this room. These items have long since been moved elsewhere and the hall returned to its simpler furnishing. The changes might also have been a pragmatic response to removing temptation from the light-fingered.

As it was, the volume of visitors as yet another school party arrived meant I could not linger in the Octagonal Hall but made my way to the Vestibule where tickets could be purchased from a side room. The very plainness of the latter bore witness to the fact it had once been used by servants. It became clearer as I progressed through the Royal Pavilion that whereas George was determined to spare no expense when it came to his own rooms, the servants’ quarters were another matter altogether. The pale green wallpaper in the Vestibule was decorated with myriad dragons picked out in white. The dragon and serpent motif was repeated in the glazed upper windows at one end of the Vestibule, where also stood two pillars, in the form of stylised lotus flowers. It struck me later that the proliferation of pillars throughout the state rooms might have arisen from the need to support the steel framework of the redesigned Pavilion. By cunningly disguising the pillars, their load bearing purpose was masked. Carved into the marble fireplace was a bamboo staff from which was suspended marble bells upon a chain. By a wall was a Regency Boudoir grand piano made of rosewood and inlaid with brass. It is not original to the house, but does resemble the grand piano depicted in a watercolour of the Vestibule dating from the 1820s.

Next to the Vestibule was a small red chamber which had an imitation bamboo dado. Real bamboo does not appear to have been much used in the house. Instead other woods and metals were fashioned to imitate it.

The Vestibule leads into what was known as the Corridor, which would have correlated to a Long Gallery in other grand houses. The pink walls are decorated with blue foliage. Chinese figures stand on pedestals or in niches. Some of them have what seem to have had real human hair attached to their faces and heads, giving them a somewhat alarming verisimilitude. Several of the mandarin figures have nodding heads. At first I thought a guide must have set one head in motion. Then, when it started up again, I thought it a trick of the light until I saw the electric lead at the base of the pedestal. 

The nodding mandarins are on either side of a marble fireplace which also had a carved bamboo staff decorating it. This time, instead of bells, wicker baskets filled with birds hung from it. From the double height centre of the Corridor, designed to look like the courtyard of a Chinese house, hangs a large chandelier in the shape of a waterlily and decorated with crimson silk tassels. The glazed skylight had images of Chinese men. As well as being decorative, the panels could be lifted to allow air to circulate. As I walked along the length of the Corridor I could see that neo-classical figures, such as cupids holding up a pair of candelabras, were mixed in with the Chinese vases, elephants and figurines. I think the skirting boards were painted to look like green marble. I was not able to surreptitiously touch one to establish whether or not it was. The Corridor is fitted with a modern replica of the wall to wall carpeting that King George would have been familiar with. The exposed wooden floor is shown in the 1970s guidebook.

The present day tour of the house means the casual visitor descends from the staircase rather than goes up them. Therefore I shall return to a description of the staircase anon.

The Corridor served a rather unusual purpose. Instead of being hung with pictures of the great and not so good or being a means to promenade indoors, it allowed guests to line up in order of rank before passing through to the Banqueting House, thereby avoiding an unseemly scrummage as dinner was announced.
Wall painting said to be of Elizabeth Conyngham
Elizabeth Conyngham by Sir Thomas Lawrence
Even the Corridor could not have prepared the uninitiated for the riotous flamboyance of the Banqueting House. There is so much to take in; I shall simply record it in the same order I observed when I wandered around it last week. The first thing to catch my eye was the wall panels of Chinese courtiers. One of them is said to be of the King’s chief concubine Elizabeth Conyngham. As I wandered around I noticed that one painting in a panel by the windows had a distinctly European face. Curious, I asked one of the guides who he was. I knew he was not King George, who had grown far too fact to be mistaken for this man. It transpired that superimposed upon the face of a Chinese courtier was the likeness of one Francis de Val. He had been the first curator of the Royal Pavilion in the Victorian era and had done much to begin the process of reclaiming original fixtures and fittings for the Pavilion, removed when it had ceased to be a royal residence.  Now over 85 percent of the fixtures and fittings have been recovered, a phenomenal success rate and all due to Mr De Val’s early endeavours which some thought were doomed to failure. His image is now immortalised in the Banqueting Hall, a most fitting accolade and, unlike Elizabeth Conyngham, he was spared the indignity of having to sleep with the portly George IV to achieve it.

The eight blue Spode porcelain, ormolu and wood pedestal lamps are very elegant. Dragons encircle the top and dolphins the base. These lamps were designed to be lit by gas. I had not realised that gas street lights had been seen in London as early as 1807. The lighting may have used gas but the huge stone fireplaces at either end of the Banqueting Hall, decorated in the Eastern style with pelicans, relied on wood and coal. 

Between the pedestal lamps are sideboards laid out with silver gilt Ambassadorial plate, some of which decorate the table.  I have to confess that antique glass, crockery and cutlery en masse is of little interest to me. Likewise, silver gilt plate. So all I can say of the dining table it is that is was set out for 24 people and apparently the convivial King George preferred to sit in the middle of the table rather than in splendid isolation at either end.

The Banqueting Room is of course dominated by the silvered dragon holding a one ton gasolier in its claws. Above the dragon are the leaves of a plantain tree, some of which are made of copper. For the first time I realised that the four smaller gasoliers are held up by giant peacocks, their drooping tail feathers trailing across the sides of the dome. The more I examined the petals of the lotus flower base, the more I realised that some had sustained significant damage. However, it did not detract from the spectacle.

Walking through the gilt canopied door I passed into what was referred to as the Decker’s Room, a form of butler’s pantry, where dishes from the kitchens were subject to last minute checks before being placed before the king and his guests. The room is very plain compared to the extravagance of the Banqueting House. It has a grey marble fireplace and contains little of the Oriental other than the six yellow and green Chinese style tea canisters on the mantelpiece and the 2 Chinese style lamps hanging from the ceiling. The royal coat of arms above the fireplace came from the Captain’s cabin of HMS Warspite. There have been a number of Royal Navy warships over the centuries bearing this name. I assume it relates to the 1758 ship which was broken up in 1801.There are various coffee urns and dishes and covers on the table and sideboard. Being a connoisseur of gateaux, I admired the white cake in the form of a triumphal arch topped by four gilded horses. It reminded me of the Tudor “subtleties” at Hampton Court Palace. It can be no coincidence that the horses were reminiscent of the Triumphal Quadriga or Horses of St Mark's in Venice. These statues of horses are said to date from Ancient Rome. When Napoleon dropped by Venice in 1797 he pinched them and installed them on top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. But then the Venetians could hardly complain as they in turn had stolen them off the Byzantines a number of centuries earlier.

The blue edged white tiled service passages had simple red tiled flooring. A single solitary leather bucket, emblazoned with the royal coat of arms, hung from a peg along the wall. It reminded me of the service passage at Ham House.

I shall return to my tour of the Royal Pavilion anon. There are the kitchens, drawing rooms and bedrooms yet to explore and a Music Room, whose gasoliers are, to my mind, far more splendid that even the ones in the Banqueting Hall.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Royal Pavilion, Brighton Part Two: Perambulating the Perimeter.

I was pleased I had a chance to pay a second visit to the Pavilion so soon after my first. It meant I was able to make more sense of the exterior relative to the interior and the development of the palace as a whole.

The East Facade

I had erroneously assumed that the largest onion dome, viewed from the East Façade, formed the roof of the fabulous Banqueting Room, from whose ceiling hangs the silvered dragon clutching a one ton gasolier in its claws. I later discovered that it had started out as a more modest dome adorning Henry Holland’s 18th century neo-classical Marine Pavilion. The dome, then as now, covered the Saloon which was the chief state room of this earlier Pavilion. Rather than knock down Henry Holland’s royal residence and start again, the architect John Nash had the innovative idea of constructing a cast iron framework to incorporate the original Pavilion into his own extravagant designs. It was innovative because at that time cast iron structures were generally confined to bridges and greenhouses.

The Banqueting House is the minaret topped building to the far left of the Saloon.  It is immediately adjacent to a neo-classical building, shorn of the exotic Oriental touches prevalent in the rest of the Pavilion. Its purpose is hinted at by the central glass tower. This structure allowed heat to escape and light to flood into the central well of the kitchens below. Being so close to the Banqueting Room meant that George, unlike his long suffering father at Kew Palace and elsewhere, could be sure of being served hot dishes that had not turned tepid by the time they were placed in front of him. For a noted gourmet and glutton like George this was an important consideration.

To the extreme right of the Saloon is the Music Room.  I had thought it odd that it had taken 30 years to renovate this room after the dreadful arson attack in 1975.  I now know that the Music Room was subject to not one but two catastrophes in the last quarter of the 20th century. Part way through the extensive renovation programme following the arson attack, the Music Room was devastated by the effects of the Great Storm of 1987. I shall always feel somewhat miffed that I managed to sleep soundly throughout the Great Storm, my only recollection of it being that my windows were rattling somewhat more than usual. The hapless Music Room had far more than rattling window panes to contend with. One of the huge stone decorative balls on the roof became dislodged and crashed through the ceiling of the Music Room, before embedding itself in the floor below.  I assume that the massive damaged stone ball I spied through some railing was the culprit. The cast iron rod which would have attached it to the roof was clearly visible.

There are several shallow stone pools in front of the East Façade, one of which was empty of water, allowing the leaf pattern on the bottom to be seen. Annoyingly, smokers seem to have been using it as a glorified ashtray. I imagine that there would always have been a road in front of the Pavilion. I assume it would have been little more than a footpath when there had only been a modest farmhouse on the site. George’s view from the staterooms would have encompassed the grassy area known as the Steine, a popular spot for the fashionable to promenade and which had ocne been used by fisherman to dru out their nets. Oddly enough the principal rooms would never have commanded a view of the sea, even in the days before the fashionable flocked to build their houses as close to the Pavilion as they could afford. On either side of the Saloon is a drawing room, each of which is surmounted by two smaller onion domes. I particularly loved the loggia on the East Elevation with its lotus flower pillars and pierced stonework walls.

The North elevation
I preferred this more understated façade. Its relative modest appearance can be attributed to the fact it doesn’t house any of the state rooms. In between the minarets are sets of small chimney pots for the numerous fireplaces in the palace.

Close to the North Elevation is an impressive gatehouse built in the Indo-Saracenic style. Outside it stands a bronze statue of George IV. However, the gatehouse itself was actually built in the reign of George’s brother William, when he in turn became king. By the gatehouse is a charming three storey Porter’s Lodge.

The West Façade 

There is another, plainer, gateway close to the West Entrance. It dates from the 1920s and was presented to Brighton as a gift from India to commemorate the wounded Indian soldiers who were housed here during World War One. The authorities rather touchingly thought that the Indian soldiers would appreciate being housed in surroundings redolent of their homeland.

The West Façade is a mixture of round towers, square towers, onion domes and minarets.
I realised later that the first storey veranda serves as the balcony for the tea-room whose culinary delights I was sadly too late to partake of. Such are the sacrifices made by the Brimstone Butterfly. 

The porch is a highly decorated affair with its own onion dome and makes a suitably regal entrance to the house.Through one of its archs can be glimpsed the green onion dome of the King William gatehouse.

I had wondered what had become of William Porden’s riding school and stables built to accommodate up to 60 horses in the grounds of the palace. I feared they might have been demolished. To my delight they have survived but have been turned over to other uses. During the 1860s the glass domed arena was converted into a concert hall known as the Dome. There is a certain piquancy that Abba won the 1974 Eurovision contest at the Dome with their song:Waterloo. The collection of Regency and Georgian clothing at the Pavilion includes a uniform worn by a soldier at the very Battle of Waterloo that had inspired the ABBA song. The rest of the equestrian complex was converted into a corn exchange and later a public library, art galleries and a museum.

Unfortunately I was unable to enter the Dome auditorium itself but I did see the tiled Moorish style entrance hall and ticket offices. There was a special exhibition on of Burmese artists in the art gallery and the space had been decorated with brightly coloured paper lamp shades. The ceiling here and in some of the museum galleries gave a real sense of the building’s original use as royal stables.

I took the opportunity to whiz around the museum. The highlights for me were all to be found in the ceramics gallery.  A Tudor ceramic wall sconce has the initials of either King Edward VI or his half sister Queen Elizabeth I and might have once have graced Hampton Court Palace.There was a macabre ivory sculpture of an execution by guillotine. The decapitated condemned prisoner sports a rather surprised look on his face. This was probably made at the height of the Terror during the French Revolution when the English had an appalled fascination with the bloody antics of their neighbours across the Channel. But the most striking item was the plate decorated with a topless Queen Mary II, done in a style Picasso would have admired and yet which dates from the late 17th century. Given that her husband King William III is shown in a more dignified manner, I cannot think what occasioned such a blatant example of lèse majesté unless, as with the woodcuts of Queen Elizabeth I and her successor James I, time constraints meant that the same template was used for both King and Queen with a few strategic adjustments made to distinguish between the two sexes.

I shall return to this subject anon when I shall describe the interior of the Royal Pavilion, which is every bit as exotic and extravagant as the exterior.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Royal Pavilion, Brighton. Part One

Whilst rummaging through the ancestral treasure house that is the attics at Brimstone Butterfly Towers, I chanced upon a rather dog eared copy of the guide to the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. I cannot remember when I last paid a call to this most eccentric of English palace’s. A quick perusal of the guide makes me realise that it must have been published prior to 1975, as it makes no reference to the devastating firebomb attack which destroyed the Music Room in that same year. It took 30 years before the Music Room was restored to its former glory and officially reopened. I seem to recall that I once went on a day trip to Brighton with my school. Perhaps it was that on that occasion that I placed the Royal Pavilion on my list of places I would take up residence in, should a catastrophe wipe out the Earth’s population. My interest was piqued as to whether I would still hold the palace in such high regard. Thus, I seized my chance to explore the exterior. Rather than dash inside and race around the Pavilion, I vowed to postpone my tour of the interior until next week.  
Georege IV by Sir Thomas Lawrence

The future George IV first rented the comparatively modest farmhouse, which he would later transform into his opulent pleasure palace, in 1786.Only a few years later his father, King George III, began to suffer from the hereditary disease which afflicted him thorough the later part of his reign and led to his son ruling in his name as Prince Regent. George the younger had a highly convoluted love life. But the one great love to whom he remained faithful and lavished a fortune upon was the Royal Pavilion itself.

The Pavilion and palace complex were built in three separate stages over 15 years and drew on the talents of several different architects. However, it is John Nash whose name is most synonymous with the design of the palace in its final incarnation. Henry Holland, who had designed George’s London royal residence, Carlton House, had drawn on the neo-classical tradition when he had first begun to extend and re-model the original farmhouse. In the first decade of the 19th century, William Porden was commissioned to build a riding school and stables to accommodate up to 60 horses in the grounds of the palace.  The design of these equestrian buildings was influenced neither by the neo-Classicism  of ChiswickHouse nor the Gothic tradition epitomised by Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill Villa. Instead, the Royal Pavilion was built in the Indo-Saracenic style. The sheer scale of the equestrian buildings compared to Henry Holland’s palace must have inspired John Nash, and more importantly his patron the Prince of Wales, to redesign the exterior of the palace to resemble that of a maharaja rather than of British royalty.

The Mughal influences of the exterior are repeated in the interior with the eclectic addition of strong Chinese elements, such as wall paintings of Chinese men and women, the statuettes of nodding Mandarins and dragon motifs. The latter reaches it apotheosis in the Banqueting Room where a silver dragon, suspended from the domed ceiling, holds up a one ton gasolier in its claws. 
Caroline of Brunswick by Sir Thomas Lawrence
The gasolier alone cost George a small fortune. His profligate lifestyle had obliged him to marry Caroline of Brunswick in 1795 as the only way of persuading the king, his father, to settle his stupendous debts. George agreed to the alliance with Caroline despite the rather inconvenient fact that he had already undergone a secret marriage ceremony with one Maria Fitzherbert. The latter was both a Catholic and twice widowed. Neither fact would have endeared her to the British establishment of the period. Mrs Fitzherbert took up residence at Marble Hill House upon George’s marriage and remained there until the Prince and his new bride had gone their separate ways less than a year later. The marriage of the Prince and Caroline was as ill fated as that of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves. 250 years earlier. As with the Tudor king, George was appalled by his bride’s appearance. The feeling was mutual. Despite regarding himself as being the First Gentleman of Europe, George made some distinctly ungallant remarks regarding his wife. In a letter to a friend he wrote about his “disgust of her person." He later went on to describe her as being "the vilest wretch this world was ever cursed with." For her part, Caroline said he was so drunk he "passed the greatest part of his bridal night under the grate, where he fell, and where I left him.”. Unlike Henry VIII, the couple were able to do their royal duty and consummate the marriage, resulting in the birth of their only child, Princess Charlotte, 9 months later. After spending just two nights together sharing the same bed, marital relationship between George and Caroline ended. Once king, after the earlier death in childbirth of their daughter, George tried to divorce Caroline on the grounds of her alleged adultery. Naturally, he being male, there were no repercussions for his own flagrant flouting of his marriage vows. George failed in his endeavours and public sympathy lay wholly with his wronged wife. But such was their fickleness, they jeered at Caroline’s unsuccessful attempts to storm her husband’s coronation held at Westminster Abbey in July 1821 and which took place within a few months of the attempted divorce. Caroline died of natural causes in August 1821. George never remarried and his brother William succeeded him to the throne in 1830. Although William had a whole brood of living children none of them were by his wife allowing his niece, Queen Victoria, to inherit the crown in 1837.

Unlike her feckless uncles, Victoria channelled her fecundity into producing an heir and eventually 8 spares.  The Royal Pavilion had never been designed to house a large family. William had stayed there as king but Victoria found it less to her liking. Furthermore, she had already resolved to build a palace of her own, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, which afford more privacy than the Pavilion. In 1850 the Royal Pavilion was sold to the local council after it had been stripped of many of its fixtures and fittings. Over time, perhaps prompted by a sense of guilt or else a realisation that George’s flamboyant tastes were out of kilter with their own, the Royal Family began to return or loan items to the Pavilion. This has enabled Brighton to not only restore the Royal Pavilion but to present it as it would have looked when George IV was still king.