Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Brighton Pavilion – OMG!

Brighton, England.
Surprising though it may seem.

Brighton Pavilion.
So I’m touring The Royal Pavilion in Brighton, the Palace of George, the Prince Regent, later George IV. I have my audio guide to my ear, and so far I’m pretty impressed with the wild exterior – Moorish castle meets ‘Star Wars’ set, courtesy of architect John Nash – and with the Octagon Hall, the opulently decorated Green Chinese Entrance Hall, and I’ve been wandering down the absolutely stunning Long Gallery, which is decorated in red, with hand- painted Chinese-themed wallpaper, thick carpets, Chinese lamps, Spode china vases and statues, and bamboo: painted, real, fake, make of bronze and carved from wood. I knew this place was over the top, but I’m pretty impressed, I can tell you.

Then I stepped into the next room, the Banqueting Room, and I literally staggered, a loud gasp escaping my lips, and I leant against the carved bamboo door jamb (a totally forbidden act, but it was involuntary). ‘So, what did you feel as you stepped into the Banqueting Room?’ the smooth chuckle came from my audio guide. ‘Were you impressed? The King wanted you to be.’  Impressed?? There has to be a stronger word. I have never seen a room like it in all my born days, and don’t ever expect to see such a thing again. Interior decorating 200 years ago, Prinny style, was not just over the top, it was off down the hill and far away.

The Banqueting Room, from a drawing by the architect, Nash.

The dragon holding the central chandelier.
Some ladies were fearful of sitting under it.
Here’s what I saw: a table to seat thirty, white cloth, ormolu candles and epergnes, fruit and crystal and plate and oranges...a massive chandelier hanging over it, suspended from a soaring dome, and held aloft by – wait for it - a large bronze dragon. The dragon is emerging from a huge mass of palm leaves which fill the dome. These seem to be painted on the ceiling of the dome, but wait...some are made of bronze and stand proud of the ceiling. The massive chandelier hangs from the dragon’s mouth, and branches into four great gas lamps, each of which is held aloft by another dragon. They are lit with electricity now, but in 1817, when Prinny entertained, there would have been great shoots of gas flame rising from each dragon’s mouth. Not enough light for you? The room has four additional chandeliers at the four corners, only slightly smaller in size to the central one. Each is a great palm frond of brass and glass. The walls are covered in Chinese paintings and wallpapers. The windows are draped in reams and reams of red and green velvet. Every inch of wall is decorated, dragons featuring heavily. The floor is covered in a rich thick carpet. Ah, pass the smelling salts.

Just a word of apology here - for the quality of the pictures of the interior. They are hard to get hold of, and even the best of them fall far short of doing justice to the experience of being inside the Pavilion. 

The Great Kitchen
After recovering myself from the shock of the Banqueting Room, the next stop was the kitchen. This was held up by palm trees too! Masses of copperware, great ovens with copper hoods, light streaming in from high clerestory windows, and – for added verisimilitude – dead animals strewn about, ready to be roasted. Taxiderm-ied, I assumed. Rabbits, ducks, birds of various kinds, fish. Even a great white swan in a cooking pan.  The kitchen was very modern and up to date for the early 1800s, and Prinny used to bring his guests in to show it off. There’s a souvenir menu from a banquet prepared by a leading French chef of the day, Chef Antonin Carême (who went on to work for the Tsar of Russia and the Rothschilds) on 18th January 1817: over 100 courses. The occasion was general hubris about the defeat of Napoleon, and Carême considered it the ‘service’ of his career.

This was starting to sound a little modern and familiar (shades of elBulli?) but the menu was not composed of paltry little degustation portions, oh no. There were: eight soups; eight ‘removes ‘of fish; forty entrees ‘served around the fish’; five ‘platters after the fish’ (think chicken, larks, rissoles, ducklings, more fish); eight ‘great pieces’ (think haunch of boar, pullets, beef with horseradish, ham and Madeira, pheasant, a turkey – fully garnished, loin of veal – with truffle  and foie gras – partridges, and roast beef); eight ‘centrepieces patisserie’ (billed as “Architectures in Spun Sugar, Fondant and Marzipan”); eight roasts (and you thought the meat courses were done!); thirty-two! desserts and savoury ‘entrements’; and twelve ‘great rounds’ (four apple soufflés, four vanilla soufflés, four fondues.)  There were never more than thirty guests to dinner at The Pavilion. George died of morbid obesity.

Kitchen tables groaning with food.
If you aren’t feeling too queasy after that lot, I must share a little more detail about the “Architectures in Spun Sugar, Fondant and Marzipan”. They included An Italian Pavilion, A Swiss Hermitage, Great Parisian Meringue, a Tower of caramelised profiteroles with pistachios, A Welsh Hermitage, a Great Nougat rendered in the French style, and a Tower of profiteroles with aniseed. And....drum roll....The Royal Pavilion itself, rendered in pastry.

I wandered then through various galleries, more lightly decorated, the retiring room, the music room gallery, the saloon...still sumptuous and elegant, but quite soothing after that extraordinary dining room. But the shocks to the system were not the opposite end of the house I stepped into yet another mind-blowing LSD sort of experience: The Music Room. Again, a soaring dome, this one encrusted with thousands of gilded cockleshells; great swathes of blue silk-satin over the tall windows, Chinese patterned wallpaper and paintings, a massive mirror framed in wood carved into bamboo and gilded, masses of red everywhere, no less than nine chandeliers, this time in the shape of great lotus leaves, the glass intricately painted. The whole place positively wreathed in dragons and snakes! They crawled up the columns and down the mirrors and around the curtains. There’s a pipe organ on the back wall. Rossini played here!

The Music Room
Thankfully, and wisely, the custodians provide seating in this room, because the tottering legs of this visitor could not have staggered on much further without a rest. But the opulence, the optical illusions, the thought of Prinny and his friends filling the room to bursting point, and listening to Rossini besides...this is not the whole story. Oh, no! There’s more!

Ceiling of the Music Room
gilded scallop shells, lotus chandeliers...
The chandeliers in the Music Room.
Note the snakes around the great mirror.
A little background: when Queen Victoria succeeded her Uncle William IV, who reigned for only ten years after his brother George died, she tried out The Brighton Pavilion, but didn’t like it much. She and Albert did, after all, have nine children. This decidedly wasn’t a family house. So they bought a ‘little’ place on the Isle of Wight for holidays, and sold Brighton Pavilion to the City of Brighton (which still owns it today). But when she left, she stripped the place bare of all its furnishings, including carpets and wallpapers, and fireplaces, some of which ended up in Buckingham Palace.  After a time, she gave some of it back, and the present Queen has loaned a lot of the original furniture to the Pavilion. But the point of this background is to illustrate what a big job it was to reconstruct the Pavilion to its former glory, the Music Room in particular being a major challenge. The custodians and conservators of the 20th century rose to the challenge, though, only to have an arsonist set fire to the Music Room in 1975. Can you imagine! The gilded cockle shells fried! The dragons up in smoke! They had to close the room for eleven years to restore it. Each cockle shell had to be re-gilded by hand.

Ohhh, dear!
And then (this is such a good story), just as the last cockle shell was being put back in place, a beautiful huge new Axminster carpet laid, the job on the cusp of completion, a hurricane swept through Brighton (in 1987) and dislodged one of the stone balls from the top of one of the minarets on the roof, and it guessed it...straight through the roof of the Music Room, embedding itself in the new carpet. Words fail me. But Britons didn’t come through the Blitz (as we’ve seen) for nothing. The Music Room is once again a thing of amazement and wonder. But there is a suspicion about that intertwining dragons and snakes is very bad fengshui.

Illustration of an evening with the Prince Regent
 in his Music Room at Brighton Pavilion
Well, I’m exhausted just telling you about these rooms. The rest of the house is certainly interesting – the private apartments used by George, his brothers, and Queen Victoria when she took over; but rather anti-climatic after the adventures of the downstairs rooms. 

The Pavilion site also has on it restored gardens (with a few daffodils sprouting in the long grass – they liked their lawns long in the regency period), and a massive stables which is now an Art Gallery and Theatre. There’s an interesting story about the Pavilion being used as a hospital for Indian soldiers during WWI, with pictures of their hospital cots lined up in – yes – the Music Room. But I will always remember my visit for the shocking moment of seeing the Banqueting Room, the stomach-boggling kitchen, and the enthralling story of the super-enthralling Music Room. Rossini!

Some images from:

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