Contributor: Nicola J. Watson
Location: Brighton, UK
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.
The Prince of Wales first visited Brighton (short for Brighthelmstone) in 1783, aged 21, prompted partly by his ever-lively desire to escape the disapproving eyes of his father’s court, and partly by the recommendation of his physicians, who suggested that sea water might ease the glandular swellings in his neck. The Prince would set the seal of fashion upon Brighton (relegating its rivals, Bath and Tunbridge Wells, to middle-class dowdiness), exploiting and reinforcing a cult of Romantic simplicity by the sea – to begin with, at least. Having rented a picturesque farmhouse on the Steine in 1784 for a couple of years, he determined in 1786 to reform, retrench and retire to Brighton, installing his new wife Mrs Fitzherbert just around the corner, there to live a life of self-dramatizing poverty while commissioning his then favourite architect Henry Holland to convert the farmhouse into a neoclassical gentleman’s residence with good views of the sea and the Steine. In 1800, having divorced Mrs Fitzherbert and contracted a disastrous marriage with Princess Caroline of Brunswick, forced on him by the necessity of persuading the King to clear his vast debts, the Prince fled back to Brighton. In 1801 he whiled away his time (and squandered Caroline’s dowry) dreaming up changes to the Pavilion. These included developing the interior into a Chinese fantasy between 1802 and 1804, hanging Chinese wallpaper sent from that country’s imperial court and cramming rooms with imported items supplied by the firm of Frederick Crace & Sons, ranging promiscuously from model pagodas and carved ivory junks to birds’ nests, Chinese razors, silks and pieces of fine porcelain.
The Prince’s liking for things Chinese was not especially innovative. The rage for Chinese imports had gone in and out of fashion across Europe throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as French and British traders had penetrated the huge Chinese empire. The rich and aristocratic, leaders of fashion, had amassed rare and beautiful objects from China, most especially porcelain and silks, which embodied superior technological skills that to date had baffled the West. So important did Europe become as a market for these wares that the Chinese invented a special export market, designing on vases and bowls painted scenes purportedly of European life but in a distinctively Chinese style. This liking for Chinese products spilled over into a variant of Rococo style around the 1740s. Known as chinoiserie, this influenced the design of textiles, furniture and gardens in courts and great houses across Europe, including one belonging to the Russian empress, Catherine the Great (1729–96). The 1780s and 1790s saw a fad for Chinese gardening in a ‘grotesque’ style. This resulted in the famous pagoda designed by Sir William Chambers (1726–92) for London’s Kew Gardens, in Frederick the Great’s Chinese-style tea-house at Sans-Souci in Germany, and in the Chinese tea-house at Stowe in Buckinghamshire. Like the pleasures of the Gothick folly (exemplified in the building of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire by the prince’s vastly rich friend, William Beckford), this sort of ‘Chineseness’ bore witness to a rebellious undercurrent that ran counter to, and in parallel with, established neoclassicism (see Dinkel, 1983, p.7).
What did it mean to escape thus into Chinese exoticism? To an Enlightenment eye, the Chinese appeared to offer an alluring model of imperial stability, of gracious ritual and strict hierarchy, of wit, charming illusion, and the pleasures of the miniature. The Chinese were supposed to be eminently civilized, although towards the end of the eighteenth century this view was coming to be tempered by a sense that Chinese civilization was stagnant by comparison with the vigour of Enlightenment Europe.
The prince was not new to the pleasures of connoisseurship in this area; by 1790 Carlton House already boasted the famous Yellow Drawing Room in the Chinese style. Nonetheless, it was one thing to collect the occasional piece of beautiful china and the odd strip of hand-painted wallpaper, setting them in ‘exotic’ colour schemes, and quite another to collect pagodas, birds’ nests, razors and vast amounts of china. The one was an exercise in graceful allusion, the other a celebration of the grotesque and the bizarre which was increasingly characteristic of turn-of-the-century Romantic taste. Whereas during the eighteenth century a man of taste’s house would have displayed his genealogy, his wealth and his classical education, he now invented himself by creating something strange and personal; hence the fantasy-world interiors of William Beckford and Sir John Soane. Intensely personal, sensational, and sensual fantasy would become a hallmark of Regency, and Romantic, style.
The Pavilion’s Chinese interiors were therefore an expression of Romantic subjectivity, a crystallization of his sense that he was a uniquely sensitive and involuted soul, ‘a different Animal from any other in the whole Creation … my feelings, my dispositions, … everything that is me, is in all respects different … to any other Being … that either is now … or in all probability that ever will exist in the whole Universe’ (To Isabel Pigot, 1808, quoted in Dinkel, 1983, p.9). Even so, the Prince’s choice of Chinese style is still a puzzle. It was conspicuously unfashionable by comparison with the rage for the Egyptian or the Greek (inspired by Nelson’s victorious Nile campaign and the researches of Napoleon’s archaeologists), or even the picturesque Gothic. It was, frankly, vulgar at this juncture, associated with London’s famous public pleasure-grounds, Vauxhall and Ranelagh. Two explanations might be advanced. One is biographical: that the style satisfied George’s nostalgia for ‘the forbidden masquerades and the festive amusements of his youth’ (Dinkel, 1983, p.30). The other is that the dream of enlightened despotism and secure hierarchy encoded in eighteenth-century aristocratic views of the Chinese may have been peculiarly congenial to a prince now leaning towards Toryism in the troubled aftermath of the French Revolution. At the exact moment that Napoleon was playing with images of authority in his efforts to invent himself as emperor, the Prince was playing nostalgically with representations of the endangered and perilous splendours of absolute monarchy.
Date: 1802-4, 1823
Creator: John Nash, Frederick Crace, George IV
Subject: The Royal Pavilion at Brighton
Object type: building
Dinkel, J. (1983) The Royal Pavilion, Brighton, Brighton, Philip Wilson Publishers and Summerfield Press.
Watson, N.J. (2002) Brighton Pavilion – OpenLearn – Open University – A207_7