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Notes on the Geography of The United Kingdom: Brighton: the Royal Pavilion

Brighton was a popular seaside retreat by 1875. We're here for one bit of exotica, however, the Royal Pavilion designed by John Nash for George IV. It may be Britain's best display of the mystique of the exotic East.

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The United Kingdom: Brighton: the Royal Pavilion picture 1

Yes, Palace Pier may be more iconic. (It's called Brighton Pier by its new and private owner, who erected the sign in 2000.) It was built in the 1890s as a replacement for the 1823 Chain Pier, which was equally if not better known.

The United Kingdom: Brighton: the Royal Pavilion picture 2

This is the kind of sober classicism against which the Royal Pavilion would react. It's the Town Hall, built in the early 1830s, though enlarged at the end of the century.

The United Kingdom: Brighton: the Royal Pavilion picture 3

In time classicism would yield to other styles, including Art Deco, represented here at the corner of Dyke and Western by a building added in the 1930s to the Imperial Arcade of the previous decade.

The United Kingdom: Brighton: the Royal Pavilion picture 4

But what's this? It's the indulgence of a young royal who had to amuse himself as prince and prince-regent for a very long time.

The United Kingdom: Brighton: the Royal Pavilion picture 5

It was an "opium dream," according to John Morley in The Making of the Royal Pavilion Brighton, 1984, p. 22. The allusion presumably is to Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," which was published in 1816, while this building, or at least its exotic final stages, was built between 1815 and 1822. The architect was John Nash, who had a special rapport with the prince. The result has been mocked almost since the day the building was finished. One recent pair of critics go easy, saying merely that the parapets are "fairly sprinkled with little finials" (Nicholas Antram and Richard Morrice, Brighton and Hove, 2008, p. 34). To make matters worse, underneath all the trim was a frame of fine British iron.

The United Kingdom: Brighton: the Royal Pavilion picture 6

Somehow, a half million pounds or more were spent on the place, which isn't very large. Dorothea Lieven, the wife of the longtime Russian Ambassador to England, wrote to Prince Metternich in 1820: "How can one describe such a piece of architecture? The style is a mixture of Moorish, Tartar, Gothic and Chinese, and all in stone and iron. It is a whim which has already cost £700,000, and it is still not fit to live in" (Quoted in Clifford Musgrave, Life in Brighton, 1970, p. 183).

The United Kingdom: Brighton: the Royal Pavilion picture 7

By the 1930s there was talk of demolition. Sir John Summerson, eminent at the time, called the place "a curiosity which rouses only a vague, transient wonder in the visitor. Its ornaments are scarcely more extravagent than those of the roundabouts at Hampstead, which they closely resemble.... Its intrinsic beauty is small." Osbert Sitwell begged to differ and wrote of "the dreamlike quality which is often found to infuse great poetry" (Musgrave, p. 8).

The United Kingdom: Brighton: the Royal Pavilion picture 8

The opulent Music Room was originally decorated by Robert Jones and Frederick Crace but rebuilt after a fire in 1975. Lieven writes, "I do not believe that since the days of Heliogabalus, there has been such magnificence and such luxury. There is something effeminate in it which is disgusting" (Musgrave, p. 168). Ouch.

The United Kingdom: Brighton: the Royal Pavilion picture 9

Drab in comparison: the King's Library.

The United Kingdom: Brighton: the Royal Pavilion picture 10

The extravagant east facade was added to a much more conventional building whose main corridor is now trimmed with some of the original chinoiserie.

The United Kingdom: Brighton: the Royal Pavilion picture 11

Though she still keeps an eye on the place, Victoria didn't like the pavilion: not enough privacy. Choosing to summer at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, she sold the building to the city of Brighton in 1850.

The United Kingdom: Brighton: the Royal Pavilion picture 12

It's never had much surrounding space, as this picture of the former stables on Church Street suggests.

The United Kingdom: Brighton: the Royal Pavilion picture 13

The interior of those stables has become a civic space.


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