It is almost impossible to write about the architecture of Brighton without going into some detail on the subject of the Royal Pavilion. It is both a sort of monument to the studied hedonism of Regency dandyism, and at the same time a glaringly offensive example of imperialistic, aristocratic decadence at its very worst. It is an utterly unique building, rivalled only by Gloucestershire’s comparatively unassuming Sezincote House, and one which explicitly calls into questions of aesthetics, history and context in art.
The origins of this bizarre structure gives us a unique insight into its aesthetics. It began its life as a relatively modest farmhouse in which the young Prince of Wales (later George IV) would lodge during his stays in Brighton. The city acted as something of a refuge for the young prince; his desire to escape his overbearing father George III drove him to the sea, and he had been advised by doctors to take up temporary residence in Brighton in order to alleviate his numerous medical problems (now thought to be porphyria inherited from his father). Gradually expanded during the late 18th Century, George’s unassuming lodgings became an elegant and sober neoclassical villa, complete with unfailingly symmetrical proportions, a portico of Doric columns and a distinctly unadorned central rotunda. At this stage in its existence it was known as the Marine Pavilion, and it emanated a distinctly statesmanlike sense of dour sobriety.
Dour sobriety, however, is not a characteristic usually associated with King George IV. He was a notorious drinker and pleasure-seeker, drinking and eating to excess and hosting lavish parties for his friends. He loved to flout convention: at dinner he eschewed the usual seating arrangement governed by rank and social standing with the King seated at the head of the table. Instead, he had the seating arranged so that men and women sat next to each other, with himself at the middle of the table. The resulting ease with which salacious affairs and clandestine rendezvous could be conducted was no accident. His taste for fine food was such that the Royal Pavilion’s kitchen was, at the time of its construction, the most technologically advanced in the country. In fact his lifestyle was so absurdly hedonistic that even his annual income of £50,000 (roughly £5,000,000 in today’s money) was not enough to sustain his activities, and he was in massive debt for large portions of his life.
This unmitigated pursuit of pleasure is reflected in the transformation which the Marine Pavilion underwent in the early years of the 19th Century. Gone were the symbols of stateliness and geometric simplicity, in their place appeared bulging onion domes and leaping minarets. It was transformed into a deliberately dramatic building; sagging and bloated under the weight of its excess and immoderation (much as George himself did in his later years). Just as the Marine Pavilion’s neoclassicism was strictly rectilinear, so George’s Royal Pavilion is emphatically curvilinear; just as straight lines clearly and soberly delineate space, so curved lines make exact boundaries unclear and frame space as something other than an entity to be rigidly defined. Goethe once famously remarked “Architecture is frozen music”, and, indeed, it is difficult to examine the Pavilion’s architecture without hearing the sound of blazing trumpets and swelling strings.
The Royal Pavilion today
Despite its striking aesthetics however – and they are truly striking – the Royal Pavilion is a monument to something other than just pleasure and architectural drama: it is also a monument to brutality.
Among the most defining characteristics of the architecture of the Royal Pavilion is its use of Indian and Islamic motifs. In fact its resemblance to Islamic architecture is such that visiting members of the English Defence League famously mistook it for a mosque. The interior, meanwhile, is an example of absurdly lavish Chinoiserie: wood painted to look like bamboo, nodding statues of stereotypical ‘Chinamen’, a huge metal dragon holding up a chandelier. In the eyes of George IV and the Pavilion’s architect John Nash, as well as many ordinary people of the era, these references to Indian, Islamic and Chinese culture symbolised exoticism and wealth. They were supposed to demonstrate the might of the British Empire, boasting of the ‘riches of the Orient’ reaped by British foreign enterprise.
Of course the hidden reality behind Britain’s massive empire is, without fail, one of genocide, starvation, suppression and hatred. Under the guise of a ‘civilising force’ the British Empire committed some of the most barbarous atrocities of the modern age, and the reality we must accept when considering a building such as the Royal Pavilion is that it was involved in propagating that violence. But as well as standing as a monument to imperialism, the Pavilion actually commits a kind of subtle violence of its own: an epistemological violence, by which I mean a violence based in the realm of knowledge. Edward Said wrote in Orientalism that “The Orient and Islam have a kind of extrareal, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.” Here, he is demonstrating the function of what he calls ‘Orientalism’ – the absorbing of ‘Eastern’ culture and the repackaging of it in a form which both serves to propagate and serve a Western imperialist agenda and which, importantly, is fundamentally alien to the culture from which it was taken. The Westerner sees the ‘Eastern’ way of life, records it from their own inevitably warped perspective and, convinced of its veracity, imposes it through the power of implicit force (and today through the far-reaching power of capital) on the very culture which they are observing. ‘This is how you live’, they declare to their subject, ‘now start living like it’. In this way, the colonised end up alienated from their own culture and traditions, all of which have been replaced by mutilated, idealised versions of them. The Royal Pavilion engages in this process: it clumsily amalgamates Indian, Chinese and Islamic motifs, proudly proclaiming to the world that ‘this is what things look like over there‘. A particularly poignant example of this in action is its use as a field hospital for injured Indian soldiers in the First World War. They were housed there because it was supposed they would ‘feel at home’. To the injured soldiers, however, it was completely unrecognisable, such was the inaccuracy of its approximation. This kind of ham-fisted imposition was rife throughout the British Empire. One only needs to look at British attempts at recreating Indo-Saracenic architecture in India with the ‘Indo-Saracenic Revival’ style to realise how utterly alien these buildings must have looked to the indigenous population and how obvious the structural violence contained within these buildings is.
How, then, are we to view this building, situated at the very heart of Brighton? Are we to condemn it as a relic of imperialism and tear it down? Surely, to do so would mean tearing down every building in Britain built from the 17th Century onwards. Are we to forget its violent implications, labelling it as ‘all in the past’? Quite blatantly not: those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, as the old adage goes. Perhaps, then, our task when appraising this building, and indeed all buildings (and ultimately all works of art), is to remain wary of context; to appreciate aesthetic interest but refrain from indiscriminately glorifying beauty, and above all to examine carefully our own attitudes and the origins from which they spring.