Prompted both by some research I am doing for an
exhibition on the early history of the British in India and by a recent visit to the extraordinary Brighton Pavilion (in which, of course, the ‘Mogul’ style is very much in evidence) , I wanted to investigate some 19th century reactions to the building, as demonstrated by Leicester’s Special Collections. The Pavilion has always caused controversy, described variously as ‘silly, charming, witty, light-hearted, extravagant, gloriously eccentric, decadent, childish, painfully vulgar, socially irresponsible’1. Although we perhaps tend to think of it as the ultimate flowering of ‘Chinoiserie’, in fact it is a Romantic confection of ‘Oriental’ styles, encompassing the Far East and the Middle East – Indian, Egyptian, Chinese – together with the Gothic, a sort of exotic stage-set for the Prince Regent, later George IV’s seaside entertaining.Brighton had first become a fashionable bathing-place, thanks largely to the work of local physician Richard Russell, who advocated sea-water bathing (and also drinking) to improve the health of his patients. As Mark Lower put it in 1865, ‘Dirty old Brighthelmstone, redolent only of fish and rope-yarn, began to develop itself into the stately Brighton that we now behold’2. But James Rouse notes in 1825 that George’s choice of the town for his seaside residence elevated it to new heights: ‘This rich and highly-adorned building has caused the prosperity of Brighton, which town had already acquired a high rank as a sea-bathing place, but which the munificence of the royal Inhabitant could alone promote to such a height of opulence, attracting … the highest and the greatest families of the kingdom’3.
The significance of the Pavilion’s Indian elements was immediately obvious to J.D. Parry in 1833: ‘The general aspect of this front is rather Indian or Persian than Chinese … It also recalls to us one branch of that mighty continental influence which we wield, it may be hoped and trusted for the general happiness and benefit. The King of England is almost ‘de facto’ King of India … why should he not have his Oriental Marine Pavilion’4. It seems that George felt ‘it was part of his role to dramatize national and imperial glory and status both in his person and in his palaces’5.Right from the early days, the Pavilion attracted many visitors and members of the public were allowed to look around the interiors. Initially, as The Strangers’ Guide tells us in 1844, entry was free: ‘Access to the Pavilion was formerly by no means difficult; but owing to that reprehensible practice, so common among Englishmen, of cutting and maiming whatever curiosities they are permitted to view, an order can now be obtained only by interest’6. In January 1820, admission to the state apartments was confined only to those with tickets. An account of a family outing to Brighton in the 1830s, confirms the introduction of ticketing: ‘William exclaimed, “Father, what a beautiful palace. I should think the inside must indeed be grand. I should so like to see it. May we not go in, papa?” “That you cannot, my dear boy,” replied Mr Stevens, “it requires interest to obtain admission now, though formerly it was free. The inside is truly splendid”’7. Then as now, the Pavilion’s fantasy mix of styles provoked widely differing reactions, with verdicts ranging from ‘this unique and splendid edifice … a noble display of native talent’8 to simply ‘a palace of very strange form’9 to George Measom’s damning ‘that bizarre and unintelligible pile of buildings’. ‘To any person of true taste,’ Measom goes on, ‘it must appear as anomalous and insipid in idea, as ridiculous, too, in absurdity, as the Kremlin of Moscow … numerous cupolas, spires and minarets that remind us more of the dwelling of a Mohammedan Pacha, or a Chinese Mandarin of three tails, than of a Prince holding the sway in a Christian country’10. However, the building had its many admirers too, J.D. Parry among them: ‘The idea has not been sparingly disseminated of the Pavilion’s being characterized by frivolity or gaudiness – a ‘Fancy’ or a ‘Folly’, in which costliness is more eminent than taste or beauty … We assure [the reader] that it is no such thing. The Pavilion is enriched with the most magnificent ornaments and the gayest and most splendid colours; yet all is in keeping … There is positively nothing glaring or gaudy …’11.
The Pavilion is just one manifestation of the Regency fascination with the magnificence and mystery of India, which spilled out into scholarship, literature and poetry as well as architecture, art and design and which I hope to explore further in an exhibition later in 2016.
- Open Learn, The Open University, http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/history-art/brighton-pavilion/content-section-0
- SCT 01367, Mark Antony Lower, The Worthies of Sussex …, (Lewes, 1865), p. 60.
- SCM 08514, James Rouse, The beauties and antiquities of the county of Sussex … , (London, 1825), p. 242
- SCM 08510, J.D. Parry, An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Coast of Sussex … : Forming a Guide to All the Watering Places, (Brighton, 1833), pp. 114-6
- Open Learn, The Open University, http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/history-art/brighton-pavilion/content-section-5
- SCS 02547, The Stranger’s Guide in Brighton …, (Brighton, [1844?]), p. 11
- SCS 04822, The Visit to Brighton, or, Amusement & Information Combined, (London, [183-?]), p. 30
- SCS 02539, Brighton as it is, 1834 …, (Brighton, 1834), pp. 14-5
- SCM 06517, Reuben Ramble, pseud., Reuben Ramble’s Travels through the Counties of England, ([London], [1845?]), p. 12
- SCS 05477, George Measom, The Official Illustrated Guide to the Brighton and South Coast Railway and its branches …, (London, [c. 1855]), pp. 68-9
- SCM 08510, J.D. Parry, An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Coast of Sussex … : Forming a Guide to All the Watering Places, (Brighton, 1833), pp. 115-6