Brighton Pavilion is one of the city’s most eye-catching buildings, showing Indian and Chinese influences in its architecture and interior. It was once a royal residence and seaside retreat for King George VI when he was Prince Regent, and its intriguing history and composition makes it one of Brighton’s most interesting attractions. It is built in the Hindu-Gothic style which was prevalent in India for most of the 19th century, thanks to British architects drawing influences from Indo-Islamic and Indian culture, as well as the Gothic revival and Neo-Classical styles which were popular in Victorian Britain at the time.
So what brought George to Brighton? Prince Henry, the Duke of Cumberland had settled a residence here, and the Prince of Wales, who later became King George IV, first visited in 1783. In 1786 he began renting farmhouse near the Steine, which later became the Pavilion. It is thought that its original use was as a discreet location in which he could enjoy meetings with his secret companion Mrs Fitzherbert, whom he wished to marry. By this point Brighton was a resort, but not a fashionable one. That would soon change, thanks to the Prince spending more and more time in the seaside town. He was the richest man in England, and came to sport silk clothes and fine embroidery while holding large social events only a royal could afford. Soon Brighton became the most fashionable place in the country, thanks to George and his hedonism.
In 1787 architect Henry Holland enlarged the existing farmhouse, creating a classy and elegant seaside villa. At the start of the nineteenth century the Pavilion was enlarged again, with a new dining room and conservatory designed by Peter Frederick Robinson. The Prince purchased land around the property, on which a riding school and stables were constructed in 1803-08. Between 1815 and 1822 John Nash redesigned and extended the Pavilion again, and it is mainly the work of Nash which can be enjoyed by tourists in Brighton today. The exterior is heavily influenced by Indian architecture, while the interiors, designed by Frederick Crace and Robert Jones, are more faux-Chinese in design. It’s this exoticism that was the affluent alternative to more classical mainstream taste of the time, and demonstrates George’s dandyism and flair. The Pavilion wasn’t trying to emulate Muslim or Hindu styles, simply use those styles to create something strange, fantastic and new. Architecture which originally had stood for piety and religious observance came to symbolise the opposite – sensuality, intoxication and illicit sex. It’s a sacrilegious irony that divine Islamic architecture was used for the prince’s decadent and sinful abode.
It’s these historical details which makes the Pavilion such an interesting building to try to understand. It defied purpose or use – The Pavilion was George’s tail-feathers, and all of Brighton must have been in awe. The building was eventually taken out of Royal hands and was sold to Brighton by Queen Victoria. Today nearly half a million people visit the Pavilion each year and the building still defines the city.