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.