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.