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George IV’s enchanted party palace

Alexandra Loske, Curator of the Royal Pavilion and Historic Properties

The Royal Pavilion sprang almost entirely from George IV’s creative mind. He was nothing if not daring, often verging on the reckless in his lifestyle, design ideas and spending habits and thus gave us what is surely the most extravagant, madly beautiful, and romantic of all historic buildings in Britain. It was the expression of a man who loved partying and entertaining, as well as being admired and flattered. The Pavilion was, as a guidebook from the 1820s puts it, ‘an enchanted place’, a ‘fairyland’, and always intended to be a place for amusement, where rules were different from those at the London court.

George first visited Brighton in 1783 as Prince of Wales, having just come of age. Ostensibly this was because his doctors recommended that the sea water would be good for his glands. However, the more relaxed atmosphere in Brighton, away from his strict father George III, must have appealed. From 1781 reports of the Prince’s wild behaviour reached his father, who complained that it was ‘almost certain that some unpleasant mention of him’ was now to be found in the newspapers each morning. Brighton quickly became his playground away from London. In the Pavilion, he would hold lavish parties, concerts and balls. Despite the ostentatious splendour of these occasions, some guests complained about the conditions in the building. Mrs Creevey, a visitor in 1805, remarked that she soon became ‘sick of the heat and stink’. Dinner parties were relatively small in number, with a maximum of 40 guests. The image of the Banqueting Room from Nash’s Views shows George sitting amidst a party of no more than 16.

George embraced the fashion for extravagant dinners in the French manner, even hiring a French chef, Marie-Antoine Carême, in 1816. Carême was particularly renowned for elaborate so-called pièces montées and grosses pièces – dishes resembling sculptural works of art or architectural models. Crucially, George introduced ‘promiscuous seating’ in Brighton, which disregarded the common etiquette of sitting according to rank. This enabled him to sit next to the ladies of his choice, whether they were aristocratic or not. Dinners would last hours and were followed by musical entertainment and – late in the evening – more food. On a visit in January 1822 the sharp-tongued Russian Princess Lieven commented on the decadent and intoxicating atmosphere at the Pavilion: ‘I do not believe that, since the days of Heliogabalus, there have been such magnificence and luxury. There is something effeminate in it which is disgusting. One spends the evening half-lying on cushions; the lights are dazzling; there are perfumes, music, liqueurs – “Devil take me, I think I must have got into bad company.”’

Balls in and near the Pavilion were much larger in respect of guest numbers than dinner parties. Both George IV and his mistress/illegal wife Maria Fitzherbert loved holding ‘masqued balls’ in the style of those held at London pleasure gardens such as Vauxhall and Ranelagh. On 28 September 1795 for example, the Brighton Gazette alerted its readers to a ‘Masquerade under the patronage and sanction of the Prince of Wales’, for which the general public could purchase tickets at a price of one guinea. Many local costumiers would advertise in the same paper as having a range of fancy dress costume for hire. After the event, the papers would then publish detailed accounts how each of the famous attendants had dressed up for the occasion. A Miss Smythe, a guest at one of Mrs Fitzherbert’s masque balls at her house on the Old Steine, wore ‘A beautiful Turkish dress, with a handsome turban of scarlet and gold, and a profusion of diamonds.’

The time after the sale of the Pavilion estate to the town commissioners of Brighton in 1850 has been described by a former Director as the period of ‘municipal nakedness’, due to the fact that Queen Victoria gutted the palace in order to recycle the interiors at Buckingham Palace. However, the commissioners didn’t do a bad job. In his Descriptive Guide to the Palace and Gardens of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton from 1851 the author Charles Wilmott praised the valiant efforts to re-create the interiors as quickly as possible, so as to be able to open the building to the public: ‘In three brief months, the dingy, dilapidated ruin of the town’s purchase has been transformed into “a thing of beauty”’. On 21 January 1851 the building was formally re-opened with a grand ball, attended by many Brightonians. In an oil painting by Aaron Penley from the same year the municipal chandeliers that replaced the Craces’ lotus-shaped oriental lustres are clearly visible. The painting is on display on the upper floor of the Royal Pavilion, in Queen Victoria’s apartments.

Throughout the 19th century the Pavilion’s stripped down historic interiors were used for many a charity ball as well as other strange and wondrous events, such as dog shows, flower displays and, in 1889, a hairdressing exhibition. In the 20th century the building became particularly popular with fashion photographers and filmmakers, and its popularity persists. Today the Music Room is one of the rooms available for civil wedding ceremonies. Featured widely in news media around the globe, on 29 March 2014 it was the setting for what was probably the first same sex wedding to take place in the UK. I think George IV would have approved.

Posted in History on Feb 01, 2024