Brighton, East Sussex: The Royal Pavilion

DSC01923_stitchThe Royal Pavilion is an amazing, confused conglomeration of excess, built for the notoriously dissipated Prince Regent (who became George IV) in the 1810s.  It’s probably the most recognisable building in Brighton, with its distinctive Indian-inspired exterior, and its even crazier Chinese-influenced interior.  And despite having visited Brighton a fair number of times over the years, the first time I ventured inside this behemoth was just a few short weeks ago.

For you see, admission to the Royal Pavilion is normally a princely £12.30, but it is a National Art Fund partner, so members get free access (even though they don’t advertise it anywhere in the building or online, which gave me a bit of a scare, but they honour it in person with no trouble), so this is the first time myself and my wallet were inclined to venture within.  Also, I was a bit worried it would be excessively touristy, but even on a Sunday, it wasn’t too terribly crowded.  I mean, we walked right in, and had no trouble strolling around the place relatively unimpeded (though it was unseasonably cold on the day of our visit, meaning most people wouldn’t choose to visit a seaside town, so your mileage may vary in nicer weather).

Now, although the Royal Pavilion has one of the most incredible interiors I’ve ever seen, and I’m anxious to share it with you all, they do not allow photography inside.  I get that they’ve done a lot of restoration work over the years, but I still feel like they could let you snap a few shots in the most impressive downstairs rooms without doing any damage, but eurgh, I don’t know.  Maybe it’s to encourage you to tell your friends to come see it for themselves, since you’ll have no pictures to show off (actually, after poking about on their website, apparently it’s the Queen’s fault.  I knew I was opposed to the monarchy for a reason).  An amble around the internet didn’t reveal any good photographs available for free use (just some drawings and copies of old postcards), so please click this link to the Royal Pavilion’s website where you can click room by room to check them all out, making sure to focus on the Music Room and Banqueting Room, which I will talk about below, because they are the best.

They offered us an audio guide when we entered, but I’m so used to declining things that I just said no, without even asking if it cost extra.  Judging by the number of people who had audio guides (i.e. everyone except us), it might not, but you still all know what my position on audio guides usually is.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a tonne to read on the ground floor of the house, generally just a small sign per room, so I probably missed out on learning about the interior.  Fortunately, this was remedied to some extent with the help of the video room, wherein I learned that the Pavilion was built by Henry Holland on something of a budget, as George was still just a prince at the time, and his daddy had his finger on the purse strings.  However, once George III descended into madness for the final time, and Georgie Jr was made Prince Regent, he decided to expand and embellish with the help of John Nash, and went for this totally crazy British-Empire-meets-the-Orient design, inspired by his love of the Far East.  Later (skipping over William IV, who wasn’t around for long anyway), the staid Victoria rejected the palace as too louche for family living, and had everything stripped out of it and mostly transferred to Buckingham Palace, while she was busy lording it up at Osborne House.  When Brighton later decided to open the palace to the public, Victoria (to her credit) returned most of the furnishings, and sort-of-shoddy reconstructions were done to make up the rest of the interiors (they had some examples in there, they were pretty craptastic).  During WWI, the Pavilion went on to serve as a hospital for Indian soldiers and later, soldiers missing limbs, and then was finally properly restored after the war years, save for some minor setbacks in the 1970s and ’80s when there was an arson attack, and then one of the minarets collapsed, which destroyed the Music Room, but it is now back in all its glory.

And the Music Room was probably the best damn room in the whole place, save for maybe the Banqueting Room (actually, I did prefer the Music Room, because snakes).  Oh man, it was incredible.  Snakes and dragons all over the damn place (not real ones, obviously), crawling up the wallpaper, serving as curtain rods, and just generally awesomely slithering around.  The Banqueting Room was pretty baller too though, especially the chandelier, which weighs a tonne (literally), and is suspended from a large winged dragon.  Also of note was the Great Kitchen, which had fake palm tree columns, and a menu from one of the Careme catered banquets George hosted (also available on their website, but it’s too small to read on there), featuring an epic 68 dishes, plus 8 edible confectionery centrepieces (all the meaty stuff sounded pretty foul (sometimes fowl), but I would definitely tuck into a “great nougat, in the French style.”  Bring one to me now).

Even the Long Gallery, which we got to pass through several times on the way upstairs and downstairs, and back through George’s personal apartments (the whole thing was quite maze-like, and we only went the right way with the help of the ropes stretched all over the place), was neat.  It was full of creepily lifelike Chinese figurines and (guess what?) more dragons.

I realise it’s probably not possible with the way the place is set up, but they should probably make you see the downstairs rooms last, because I felt a little bit like Homer when he was given a tour of Mr. Burns’s house that ended in the basement (Homer: “Gee, it’s not as nice as the other rooms.”  Mr. Burns: “Yes, I really should stop ending the tour with it.”).  The upstairs rooms fairly paled in comparison to the splendours downstairs, but I did enjoy the museum-y rooms where I learned more about the restoration of the palace, and its time as a war hospital, and there was also a room full of caricatures of George IV, which were brilliant.  Victoria’s boringly restrained apartments were up here too, and according to their website, there was also a special bed with a tipping mechanism made for George when he was at his morbidly obese/gouty stage so he could get up more easily, but I somehow missed that detail when we were there (actually, that bed was downstairs, because if George could barely get out of bed, he certainly couldn’t climb stairs, but I still don’t remember seeing it).  Guess I paid the price for not taking the audio guide.

The palace also featured an enormous gift shop (not really anything in it I wanted to buy, but it was for sure big), and not one, but TWO cafes (probably technically a cafe and a tea room), but I didn’t see any millionaire’s shortbread (Brighton’s got too many good bakeries for me to want to eat in a museum cafe anyway), plus my stomach was already all set for some ice cream from Scoop and Crumb (it was a bit icier than usual, probably because it was still the off-season, but it didn’t stop me from eating three large scoops and promptly getting a stomachache). I don’t know if I’d still be as keen if I’d paid £12.30 for the Royal Pavilion (maybe if I’d had the audio guide.  If I’d paid, I’d definitely have taken the audio guide), since we walked through in under an hour, but for free, this was a fabulous outing.  I think this probably had my favourite interior out of any palace I’ve visited (which probably means I’m as gaudy and tasteless as George IV, but so be it), at least where the main downstairs rooms were concerned, and it was definitely worth seeing, at long last.  Still salty about my inability to photograph it (I should say Marcus’s inability to photograph it, because I never voluntarily take pictures) though.  4/5.

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3 comments

  1. Wow, somehow I didn’t expect it to be so … I don’t know, lively. I’m with you – the banquet and music room are amazing and I love the palms in the Great Kitchen.

    1. It is lively indeed. George IV was quite flamboyant. It’s a shame he carried that over into gluttonous eating habits, otherwise he might have lived longer and spared everyone a few years of boring old Victoria (disregarding William IV, of course).

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