The Royal Pavilion - A Palace Fit for a Maharajah:
The British Raj - Britain's Indian Empire - was young and exciting and the fashion for Chinoiserie was all the rage in the early 19th century when the Prince Regent - later King George IV - had architect John Nash convert his farm house near the seaside into the extraordinary fantasy Palace that is the Royal Pavilion.
The mock Indian palace, filled with an equally extraordinary collection of Chinese Chippendale furnishings, is one of Brighton's most famous attractions, with hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
A Playhouse Built for a Playboy:
In 1820, George IV, then Prince Regent for his mad father King George III (the one who lost them the American colonies), decided to transform his seaside retreat to entertain his friends, usually in the company of his companion and unacknowledged (by the establishment) wife, the twice widowed Mrs. Fitzherbert.
The key rooms are the amazing banqueting room, a huge (and 1816 state-of-the-art) kitchen and a music room with its own impressive pipe organ. Upstairs, the accommodations and bedchambers are, for a palace, surprisingly small and modestly furnished.
There Be Dragons:
When it comes to the "Wow" factor, nothing quite prepares visitors for the Banqueting Room, designed by Robert Jones. The Prince Regent's original guests were equally impressed.
An enormous, silver gilt dragon supports the main chandelier, under metal palm fronds that seem to quiver as visitors walk through. It was said that women guests were afraid to sit under it. More dragons decorate the elaborate blown glass and crystal chandelier as well as smaller fixtures around the room. The table setting, for a dessert service, is based on an aquatint done for architect John Nash in 1823.
The Music Room:
Nine lotus shaped chandeliers lit the elaborate music room, where George IV's own band entertained guests. The room today is a triumph of the restorer's art. Severely damaged by fire in 1975. Restoration took 10 years and included reproducing the room's large, hand-knotted Axminster carpet. The last lick of paint had barely dried when, during the "hurricane" of 1987, a stone ball became dislodged from one of the minarets and fell through the recently restored ceiling - embedding itself in the carpet.
The Great Kitchen:
With its high ceiling - supported by four, cast iron "palm trees" - and its modern (circa 1816) appliances, the kitchen was such a point of pride for the Prince Regent that guests were often shown around it as part of a grand tour of the Pavilion's state rooms. Head chef, Marie-Antoine de Careme - who is credited with inventing the chef's white coat and hat - was known as the chef of kings (he also cooked for the Russian Tzar). A reproduction of a menu for one of his banquets is on display in the kitchen.
A Theatrical Facade:
Nash built a framework of cast iron (at the time a technically advanced material) around the original farmhouse and other earlier structures. The Pavilion's elaborate domes, towers and lattice work details are hung on this framework. The fragility of Nash's design was apparent almost immediately. The roof was leaking within 10 years. In 1982, a major program of restoration, costing £10 million, strengthened the fabric of the structure.
Restoration of the original decorative interiors is still ongoing.
The Queen Was Not Amused:
Queen Victoria, niece of George IV and his young brother William IV, was not all that impressed with the Royal Pavilion. It was too small for her family, lacked a sea view and the town was virtually on its doorstep.
In 1850, she sold it to the town. The Brighton and Hove council still own it.
Some say, Queen Victoria also disapproved of extravagant furnishings. But she packed them up and took them with her when she sold the place. The furniture and artwork now on display in the house, including many examples from the Chippendale workshop, are still owned by the Queen and are on loan to the Pavilion.
The Pavilion Today:
The Pavilion is open to the public everyday and its restored Regency gardens are a pleasant oasis in the middle of busy Brighton.
Several of the rooms - including the magnificent Banqueting Room and Great Kitchen - can be hired for functions. It is also possible to celebrate a marriage or civil partnership ceremony in the Royal Pavilion.
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