Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Building of the Week: The Royal Pavilion at Brighton

"How you doin'?"
King George IV when Prince of Wales
The Royal Collection

Good ol’ George IV was something of a “bad boy.” Perhaps, even, he was the Charlie Sheen of his day—behaviorally, at least. While King George IV had unquestionably good taste in art and furnishings and assembled an amazing collection of antiquities, he also had a taste for the ladies and for alcohol, good food and other stuff he considered ripping, good fun.

While still the Prince of Wales, George went to Brighton and fell in love with the slightly tawdry (at the time) seaside town. He decided to keep a home there. It seemed like a good place to hide out and also provided a nifty little spot for him to entertain lady friends. He had one particular lady friend who was a frequent visitor to his modest, new farmhouse in Brighton—Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert. Mrs. Fitzherbert was a favorite companion of the Prince of Wales. He wished to marry her, but he didn’t dare ask for permission to wed the twice-widowed Catholic woman. So, instead, he married her in secret—as one does. This didn’t sit too well with George’s elders and betters. The marriage was declared invalid—secretly, of course. Later, George would marry Princess Caroline of Brunswick. The State liked that marriage. George, however, did not. He kept seeing Mrs. Fitzherbert (and many others) throughout. And, where better to meet his “friends” than at Brighton? Besides, he would argue, the salt water was good for his gout.

Prince George’s farmhouse was too small. When George had built tremendous stables that dwarfed the house, he knew it was time for him to enlarge his summer residence. In 1787, he employed Henry Holland as architect. Holland had designed George’s London mansion, Carlton House. The resulting structure of several rooms around a central rotunda was still modest when compared to the site today. The house was called “The Marine Pavilion.” It, too, proved too small and was enlarged again in 1801.

Then, George had some family troubles—namely with his father King George III. It seemed George III wasn’t quite himself. In fact, some would say he’d gone quite mad. In any event, George III was not fit to be the ruler of the Empire. Being as George III was still alive, George IV couldn’t be crowned king just yet. So, he was dubbed Prince Regent, and set about taking over his father’s duties. This proved to be something of a distraction for George IV.

Still, in 1815, he found the time to update his Marine Pavilion. This time, designer John Nash concocted a design for a huge, lavish Indo-Saracenic palace with Chinoiserie décor and furnishings. The tremendous pavilion with its Indian-inspired domes and archways was opulently appointed with imported furniture, porcelain and textiles. This gave George IV the opportunity to buy more things for his collection. Nash saw to it that George would be quite comfortable there. The height of technology was employed in the pipes, heating and sanitation.

The Prince Regent was thrilled with the new pavilion and took great delight in its richly-colored rooms, plush Persian rugs, glittering chandeliers, and gilt woodwork. It remained his favorite home. When his father died and he became King George IV, he preferred the Royal Pavilion at Brighton above all other residences—even his beloved Carlton House.

Upon the death of George IV, King William IV also used the pavilion as an occasional home though he didn’t have quite the enthusiasm for it that George did. William IV’s successor, his niece, Queen Victoria loathed the place. She did, however, visit it to show her support for Brighton. After that, she was really rather finished with the place. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert built their own—much friendlier-looking—summer home, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, and they sold the pavilion to Brighton for about £50,000.

While some toyed with the idea of tearing down the palace, most recognized that the Pavilion at Brighton was too important to the city to lose. The building was stripped of most of its fittings (on order of Queen Victoria) and redecorated in a similar, yet more subdued style, for use as a civic hall. In the 1890’s Queen Victoria permanently loaned much of the original fittings to Brighton so that they could be returned to their original home and put on display for the public.

The pavilion has had many uses over the years—including time as a hospital. Around World War II, restoration efforts increased, and since that time, the palace has been well-maintained and open to the public. Today, efforts continue to not only maintain the pavilion, but also to restore it to John Nash’s and King George’s original vision. The palace is open for tours. For more information, visit the official Web site of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton.

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