For the unsuspecting seaside tripper, the eccentricity of this 'Indianised' royal palace suddenly appearing amid the traditional paraphernalia of a British coastal resort must seem quite bizarre. But this exotic Regency structure is as much a part of Brighton as the familiar Victorian piers. First rented as a 'respectable farmhouse' by the Prince of Wales in 1783, it was transformed into a neo-classical marine pavilion by Henry Holland just four years later. With an arc of slender Ionic columns fronting the central domed rotunda, and flanking wings all dressed in subtle creamy tiles, the Royal Pavilion began taking shape. At the beginning of the 19th century it was extended to provide a new dining room and a conservatory, and a few years later an Indian style stable block was built. Designed by William Porden, who studied under Samuel Pepys Cockerell, this massive, elegant building both dwarfed and outshone the residential structure.
In 1815 John Nash was commissioned by the Prince Regent to transform the modest house into something more fitting for a future King. The inspired and extravagant result, strongly influenced by the flamboyant Indian architecture, was completed with typical Nash romanticism in a magnificent array of domes, cubes, minarets and spires. Frederick Crace and Robert Jones were responsible for the lavishly appointed rooms, their combined skills using a 'Chinese' theme giving the new Royal Pavilion a sophisticated opulence that perfectly complimented the splendid building. This fantastical seaside palace was where King George IV could bring his mistresses, entertain his friends, and host amazing dinner parties, in exquisitely comfortable surroundings, and close to the thriving and fashionable town of Brighton.
William IV continued to use the Pavilion as a Royal residence, but Queen Victoria took an instant dislike to the 'strange looking thing', and by 1845 had deserted both the Royal Pavilion and Brighton, finding the refinement and peace of the Isle of Wight more appealing to her sense of privacy. Realising the importance of this historically picturesque feature, Brighton readily agreed to purchase the Royal Pavilion from the Crown in 1850 to save it from demolition. Although stripped of its finery, the devastated shell was sufficiently renovated to facilitate exhibitions, flower shows and concerts in limited areas.
During the First World War the Royal Pavilion was used as a hospital, its already shabby condition deteriorating even further. Serious restoration work began in 1920 and gathered momentum as popular interest grew in the Regency period, coupled with an increasing awareness of the need to preserve historical monuments. Briefly interrupted by the Second World War, an arson attack in 1975, and resulting damage from the hurricane in 1987, the Royal Pavilion today represents over eight decades of dedicated craftsmanship at a cost of millions to return this breathtaking building to its former Regency splendour.
Generous donations from the Royal Family have ensured that many of the rooms now display their original furnishings and, with the help of archived documentation, the restoration teams have recreated the early 19th century schemes installed by Crace and Jones. This exotic gleaming palace, once again proudly boasting the sumptuous interiors approved by George IV, is simply awesome. Perhaps the saddest and most shameful thing is that it is now purely a showpiece, and no one can truly experience the luxury and extravagance of 'living like a King'.