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.