Imagine having the power and the money to be able to build the playground of your dreams. A place where all of your most exotic and eccentric ideas can take form. A place for you to have the best time of your life again and again, without judgement. A place purely for pleasure. Now imagine that place is a palace. Visualise it near the ocean. And look at yourself – you are a prince/princess, soon to be king/queen. But that is not important at the moment, cause you’re young, you’re royal, and you’re wealthy. You only want to have fun before that crown lands in your head.
This is how the Royal Pavillion in Brighton was born. George, Prince of Wales, to be King George IV, was once advised by his doctors to take some time in Brighton, it would be good for his health (the seaside always is). In the mid 1780s, the prince rented a small lodging house overlooking the town which at the time was transitioning from a decayed fishing town to an established seaside retreat for the rich and famous. At that time, Brighton’s proximity to London, and the therapeutic benefits of the seawater were attracting a different elite to the fishing town.
The British Royal family has a long history of rebellious sons and daughters, and George was no exception. He found in Brighton the perfect escape from the strict upbringing of London. He was vain and extravagant, passionate about the arts, but also for the good living – and with this, we mean women, drinking and gambling. The prince hired the architect Henry Holland to transform his lodgings in Brighton into a “modest” villa. Being passionate about arts and fascinated by the mythical orient, George did not look at expenses when it came to the furnishing and decoration of his seaside home, choosing Chinese export furniture and objects as well as hand-painted Chinese wallpapers. It was in 1825, that George commissioned John Nash to begin the transformation of this villa into the pavilion we can all visit today.
The Pavillion was built to be a place of exuberance, a palace of pleasure, for the Prince to show off to his many guests his wealth, his collections, and his eccentric taste. It was not a family palace – quite the contrary. Many years later, Queen Victoria would describe the palace as being too small for her growing family, and she wasn’t a fan of its central location of it, which allowed for little or no privacy.
George’s presence in Brighton brought prosperity to the city, with its population growing significantly – the actual construction of the Pavillion provided jobs for local tradesmen, labourers and craftsmen. Plus, all of George’s guests were members of high society and the Royal Household. Of course, wealth attracts wealth.
George became king in 1820, when he was already 60 years old. Long gone were his years of youth, the crown brought heavy responsibilities that kept him in London for longer periods of time. His health was also quite poor. The interior of the Royal Pavillion was finished in 1823, but the now ing was only able to visit it two more times before his death, in 1830.
The Pavillion was almost destroyed when Victoria took over the crown. She ended up selling the place to the town of Brighton in 1850. It was thought the Pavillion would be demolished and so she ordered the building to be stripped of all its interior decorations, fitting and furnishings to be used in other royal houses.
Yet, Brighton continued to prosper, with the opening of the new London Brighton railway marking the beginning of mass tourism. The people of Brighton were very much aware of the symbolic importance of the Royal Pavillion – so it was never demolished (I’m very glad!) and was redecorated and opened to the public. Queen Victoria eventually returned a lot of the decorations that had been moved from the Pavillion to other royal homes, including Buckingham Palace.
Hard to imagine visiting a place that was made for moments of joy, but during World War I the Royal Pavillon was used as a hospital for Indian soldiers. The damage from this experience was repaired in 1920, which was further improved when Queen Mary returned even more furniture at the time in Buckingham palace.
What we can see today, in the 21st century, is a very close approximation to the vision of George IV. Lots of restoration work are still being made today, but it’s been a bumpy journey – in 1975, an arson attack damaged the beautiful Music Room, which was then closed for 11 years. Then, in 1987, a great storm caused a ball of stone to be dislodged from a minaret, and fell through the newly restored coving, burying itself in the new carpet. I was lucky enough to see the Music Room fully restored.
A visit to Brighton should absolutely include this place. It is simply stunning, from the moment you enter until the moment you leave. It does look like you’ve entered some sort of wonderland. The details are unique, doted of high-quality craftmanship and wild imagination, so I must confess that a part of me sympathises with the former prince and king, despite his terrible habits.
I wouldn’t mind having my own palace of pleasures… who would say no to that? 🙂 Check what else I was up to in Brighton here.