Description: This Chinese-style interior belongs to a quintessentially Romantic piece of architecture, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, designed and redesigned over the course of some 30 years to the specifications of the Prince of Wales, afterwards Prince Regent and eventually King George IV (1762–1830; reigned 1820–30). Silly, charming, witty, light-hearted, extravagant, gloriously eccentric, decadent, childish, painfully vulgar, socially irresponsible, a piece of outrageous folly and a stylistic phantasmagoria, the Pavilion is a flight of Romantic fancy, comparable in its impulse to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’ (1798, pub. 1816). It realised many aspects of Regency society: systems of patronage of the arts; ideas of health, leisure and pleasure; notions of technological progress, which drove the Industrial Revolution and were in turn reinforced by it; concepts of public and private and the proper relations between them; ideas of royal authority in the post-Napoleonic era of restoration of hereditary monarchies across Europe; the fashion for Oriental scholarship and the ‘Oriental tale’; and powerfully interconnected ideas of trade, empire and the East. More particularly, The Long Gallery’s chinoiserie encoded a complex of Romantic-period ideas about the nature of Romantic interiority and political power.
Description: In the early 1820s, the British Museum passed up the opportunity to purchase what is now among the most celebrated objects in the Sir John Soane Museum and, according to Tim Knox, “one of the most spectacular Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt” (105): the alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I, dating from about 1279 BC. It was carved from a single block of semi-transparent aragonite and covered with hieroglyphs from the Book of Gates. Inside, on the floor of the coffin, an image of the goddess Nut, guardian of the dead king’s soul, has been incised. (1) Admittedly, the price tag was 2,000 pounds, and the precise value of newly excavated antiquities from Egypt—received as curiosities more ‘wondrous’ than aesthetically pleasing—was difficult to establish. After some protracted dithering, the object went instead, in 1824, to John Soane whose house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields was not just a working architect’s studio, but also a dramatic showcase for his collections of architectural fragments, antiquities, artworks, and curiosities – many of which are documented in this watercolour by Richardson, Soane’s former pupil and assistant. The sarcophagus, given pride of place, can be thought of as a romantic ‘medium’ apart from the occult connotations of the term: it is itself a transported or displaced vehicle for transport into the afterlife, a museum monument to the way memory can be materialized, and death made a living (if empty) object of meditation in the present. It is also part of a narrative about the attractions of Egypt for Romantic traveller-explorers, and the perils of imperial appropriation.