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Sunday 4 November 2012

What did Regency visitors think of the Brighton Pavilion?

A fairytale palace

Brighton Pavilion from the gardens
Brighton Pavilion is a fairytale palace – a bizarre mixture of domes and minarets, fitted out internally in luxurious but eccentric style. You cannot help but marvel at the unconventional architecture and the sumptuous decoration, but it is not to everyone’s taste. I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Pavilion last week and see the exhibition on Princess Charlotte. The audio commentary reminded me that, when it was built, the Pavilion was far from universally admired.

 A litter of cupolas

Brighton Pavilion from the Steyne

“The Pavilion in Chinese style – beautiful and tasty,” wrote William Wilberforce, “though it looks very much as if St Paul’s had come down to the sea and left behind a litter of cupolas”.

Sydney Smith agreed: “It looks as if St Paul’s Cathedral has come down to Brighton and pupped.” These quotes are so similar that it seems likely that one was derived from the other.

Turnips and bulbs

William Cobbett claimed that the Pavilion, which he nicknamed the Kremlin, had “long been a subject of laughter all over the country”. He described the Pavilion in very unflattering terms, no doubt strongly influenced by his disgust at the Prince Regent’s extravagance in rebuilding it:

Brighton Pavilion- the entrance
“Take a square box, the sides of which are three feet and a half, and the height a foot and a half. Take a large Norfolk turnip, cut off the green of the leaves, leave the stalks nine inches long, tie these round with a string three inches from the top, and put the turnip on the middle of the box. Then take four turnips of half the size, threat them in the same way, and put them on the corners of the box. Then take a considerable number of bulbs of the crown imperial, the narcissus, the hyacinth, the tulip, the crocus, and others; let the leaves of each have sprouted to about an inch, more or less according to the size of the bulb; put all these, pretty promiscuously, but pretty thickly, on the top of the box. Then stand off and look at your architecture. There! That’s ‘a Kremlin’!”

Pumpkins and pepper boxes

William Hazlitt was similarly unimpressed:
“The Pavilion at Brighton is like a collection of stone pumpkins and pepper boxes. It seems as if the genius of architecture had at once the dropsy and the megrims. Anything more fantastical, with a greater dearth of invention, was never seen.”

The skyline at Brighton Pavilion
The Folly at Brighton

Another less than flattering reference to the Pavilion and its owner was in The Joss and His Folly, a poem illustrated by George Cruikshank. The verses were written by William Hone and appeared in an 1820 pamphlet, The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder, which accompanied a “national toy”. The first four verses refer to “The Folly at Brighton”:

The Joss and His Folly by George Cruikshank
From The Queen's Matrimonial Ladder
by William Hone (1820)
The queerest of all the queer sights
I’ve set sights on;
Is the what d’ye call’t thing, here,
The Folly at Brighton

The outside – huge teapots,
All drill’d round with holes,
Relieved by extinguishers,
Sticking on poles;

The inside – all tea-things,
And dragons, and bells,
The show-rooms – all show,
The sleeping rooms – cells.

But the grand Curiosity’s
Not to be seen –
The owner himself –
An old fat Mandarin.
A Regency icon

I like Brighton Pavilion. To me, it sums up George IV so beautifully. It is a vivid statement of his lifestyle – extravagant, inconsistent and hedonistic. He was continually redecorating and rebuilding, filling his palace with beautiful things and entertaining lavishly. And yet when it was finished, he decided its situation was too public, and soon after, he abandoned it for the privacy of Windsor. Yes, it is over the top and I am not a big fan of all the dragons and snakes, but I am so glad that the palace has been preserved as a lasting symbol of the Regency.

Sources used include:
Cobbett, William, Rural rides in the counties of Surrey, Kent etc during the years 1821 to 1832, ed Pitt Cobbett (1893)
Low, Donald A, That Sunny Dome - a portrait of Regency Britain (Book Club Associates, 1977)
Feltham, John, A Guide to all the Watering and Sea-bathing Places (1815)
Hazlitt, William, Notes of a journey through France and Italy (1826)
Hone, William, The Queen's Matrimonial Ladder (1820)
Morley, John, The Royal Pavilion, Brighton
Nash, John, Views of the Royal Pavilion with commentary by Gervase Jackson-Stops (1991)
Wilberforce, Robert Isaac and Samuel, The Life of William Wilberforce (John Murray, 1839)

Photographs by Andrew Knowles -


  1. I like it too. One of my favorite places to visit! Wish I could have caught the Princess Charlotte event!

    1. The exhibition is on until 10 March 2013, so there's still time :)