Today was a combination of free wandering through the Brighton pavilion and a visit to the Regency Townhouse Restoration Project.
So this morning we turned up bright and early on the doorstep on the Pavillion, which is a very impressive building that to many people looks Indian/Middle Eastern and doesn’t fit at all with the landscape of Brighton. I quickly learned that while to me it looks Indian or Middle Eastern, very few people from those two areas would recognise much of their architectural styles in it as it is really one man’s vision of what he thought these styles should look like.
Unfortunately there is no photography allowed inside the building as most of their collection is on loan and the loan conditions stipulate no photos. However what I can tell you is the Prince Regent who designed this place was slightly obsessed with the Far East. He has loads of paintings, statues, carvings, wall paper, whatever he could use to decorate this place with Chinese and Asian themes. Some of it he was a bit sneaky with as well, so his stair railings are cast iron but they’re painted to look like bamboo. His dining room, apart from being massive which is normal for these places, is completely covered in Chinese paintings and dragons. Yes that’s right, the guy liked his dragons. The centrepiece of the dining room is a giant chandelier which has a 12ft carved wooden dragon at the top which has been covered in silver leaf and then painted. From that hangs the chandelier which consists of 15,000 individual crystals and has another four silvered carved dragon heads coming out of it which are upturned and positioned to look like the are exhaling the lotus-shaped light fixtures. The entire thing weighs just over a tonne.
The building is very impressive but it follows one of the standard formats of a manor house experience where you are given an audio guide to walk around with and have to follow a set route through the building. I understand why they do this in such popular sites to help with visitor flow and controlling crowds but it does get a little dull after a while.
From there we walked to Brunswick Square where we met Nick from the Regency Townhouse Restoraion Project. They have purchased one of the townhouses on the square and are slowly working to take it back to what it would have looked like during the Regency period (roughly between 1800-1830s). They are also building a fantastic database of Regency history for the public. Technically the Regency period is limited to 1811-1820 when King George III was going mad so the Regency act permitted his son to become the Prince Regent, he later became George IV.
Nick is an extremely enthusiastic and interesting man who gave us a very comprehensive overview of the history of Brighton and what they are trying to achieve with the restoration project. We were given a quick gallop through the development of Brighton from a sleepy little fishing and market garden village in the 1720s with a population of around 2,000 people to a bustling growing town in the 1820s as housing estates expand to the east and west. In the 19th century Brighton was the fastest growing town in Britain. This was due to a combination of factors; firstly is Dr Richard Russell who began promoting the medicinal benefits of ocean air and salt water for treating people’s ailments. Cures took the form of lengthy prescriptions describing the number of times bathing in salt water was necessary, where people should live to provide optimal exposure to sea air and concoctions of salt water and other ingredients to drink. Secondly was the arrival of the Prince Regent in town at the age of 21. As is usually, where people of prominence go, fashionable society generally follows. The road access to Brighton also begins to improve in the 1830s which helps as well. Finally the locals also learnt very quickly that they could capitalise on the tourism industry. They had a significant number of wealthy people coming to town and if they provided goods and services quick enough and at a high enough standard they could keep them coming back, which resulted in a lot of early investment in hotels and associated services instead of industrial development.
Nick then described to us the extensive process of restoring the Townhouse, which had been divided up into flats during the 1980s, back to how it would have looked as a Regency Townhouse. They are currently colour matching the original pain for the dining room, which was discovered by carefully sanding through the paint with ever decreasing grades of sandpaper, revealing approximately seven different colours with the original being a slightly sickening shade of purple.
One of the hazards with this practice is the lead based paint. Workers have to be trained and wearing appropriate protective gear (dust masks) and vacuum particles as they go to prevent inhaling too much lead. Several patch tests are usually needed to ensure accuracy in case there was some kind of pattern design or feature painted on the wall.
Nick also stressed the importance of knowing not just the original materials of construction but also the time period in which a house was built in order to safely restore it. These townhouses were constructed around 1820-30. By the end of the 1830s in Britain the economy is suffering and there are very few building projects going on, many which are happening are going bankrupt. So the architect for this set in Brunswick Square had specified the materials for construction but he realises that if he holds the contractors to that then there is a high chance they will go bankrupt and not finish his designs. So instead he relaxes his standards and allows them to use cheaper materials and cut corners. This means that structural problems begin to show relatively early and by 150 years later many of these houses are collapsing from the inside out. The knowledge about context and quality of materials will help inform you of what might go wrong next and how the house will perform over time.
Consequently many structural repairs were needed when the Trust took on the house, some are still ongoing. Once they have been complete the plan is to reinstate internal fixtures such as skirting and plasterwork before moving on to the decorative elements and furniture. It will be an extensive project but with a dedicated core team of 50 volunteers with a total force of about 200 I have every faith that it will be an impressive house when completed.
Tomorrow we return for more history of the house and a practical excercise in learning how to plaster.