Gallivanting and gluttony

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Laurence Alster on the opulence and excesses of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton.

Few buildings reflect the character of their owner as well as the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Exotic, extravagant and occasionally overblown, the Pavilion was redesigned from 1815 to 1823 according to the wishes of George, Prince of Wales, later King George IV. After that, "Coming back to my place?" - or words to that effect - were never used more confidently by a monarch as publicly notorious for his gallivanting as for his gluttony. Visitors to the Pavilion can reflect on the luxury enjoyed by a man who, according to William Thackeray in 1851, was "but a bow and a grin".

It is a strange but instructive paradox that a building filled with such beautiful objects should be the memorial of so empty a man.

Most visitors are clearly more captivated by the opulence of the place than bothered about the morals of its original owner. No wonder: designed to dazzle, the Pavilion does just that.

While several of the rooms, notably the entrance hall and the banqueting room gallery, are charming and elegant, the ones where visitors most gaze in awe are those that suggest the self-indulgence for which George IV is perhaps best remembered. The banqueting room, therefore, gets the most gasps.

This is where distinguished guests were tempted by as many as 60 dishes at one sitting. Reinforcing the Chinese theme already established by the figurines and hanging lanterns of the long gallery, the banqueting room astonishes with its splendid chandeliers, vivid wall-paintings and beautiful lampstands, adding up to a general air of unrestrained luxuriousness.

Younger visitors are always interested to hear that at the end of his life, George IV weighed 23 stone and had to be craned on to his horse. This room helps to explain why.

So does the next big attraction, the great kitchen. An enormous room catered for appetites of gargantuan size, with a small army of cooks using various vessels and utensils to prepare numerous beasts - pigs, hare, pheasants, even swans - for the king's company. Dummies of these animals rest on large tables, while others turn slowly before a huge fire.

On a small table in the centre of the room crouches a large rat. Not historically accurate, apparently - the kitchen was as famed for its cleanliness as for its cuisine, but a children's favourite nevertheless.

The best of the rest includes the almost impossibly sumptuous music room, which was recently restored to its full, Chinese-style splendour after disasters both deliberate - arson - and natural - the 1987 hurricane. Then, on the first floor, some delightfully rude contemporary prints by such as Gillray and Rowlandson indicate what his subjects thought of their wayward monarch.

By contrast, Queen Victoria's apartments small and, relatively speaking, eminently sensible, signify a different monarch's belief in restraint and respectability.

There is one luxury, though: just off the bedroom, a proper, plumbed-in water closet. Amid all the opulence of the rest of the building, it serves as a healthy reminder that kings and queens have most in common with the rest of us when they're on the throne.

The Royal Pavilion, Brighton. Tel: 01273 713232

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