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Brighton Pavilion
Brighton Pavilion

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6 The Pavilion and the picturesque

Nash's evocation of the picturesque as an aesthetic to describe the projected exterior for the Pavilion is striking. If neoclassical Palladian houses had stood four-square in the landscape, rising up out of extensive lawns and commanding an elaborately naturalistic landscape of grazing sheep and cattle to the horizon diversified by an ornamental lake, the picturesque house was instead enfolded within and extended by its garden.

Repton and Nash, in partnership from 1796 to 1802, were two of the most important exponents of picturesque garden design, deriving their practice from their personal association with the two theorists of the picturesque, Uvedale Price and his friend Richard Payne Knight.

The picturesque garden was characterized by sinuous shrubberies, flowerbeds, trellis-work and ornate garden seats, conservatories, flower corridors and trellised verandas (see Batey, 1995, p.5). The informality of serpentine winding paths and asymmetrical beds was typically punctuated by small buildings in various fantasy architectural styles ranging through the classical, the Gothick, the rustic, the Chinese and so on. (The house and grounds of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire provide an excellent example of an early eighteenth-century landscape ‘improved’ by Capability Brown; Luscombe Castle in Devon, by contrast, is an excellent example of the picturesque style.)

The charming connotations of dream, escape and fantasy that had characterized the garden follies which dotted the Rococo garden earlier in the eighteenth century had grown to magnificent size in the Pavilion itself.

Nor was this picturesque aesthetic confined to the exterior of the Pavilion and its setting; it also conditioned some of the feel of its interiors. In Repton's and Nash's time, the immediate garden became thought of as an extension to the house. Interiors broke out into trellised and flowered wallpaper, and flowed out into conservatories; Edgeworth's The Absentee describes Lady Clonbrony's supper-room decorated with trellised paper.

Sir John Soane himself decorated Pitzhanger Manor with trellis-work and flower sprays. London-based party entrepreneurs would undertake to expand this aesthetic, tenting and illuminating their clients’ gardens, and filling such marquees with draped muslin, vast mirrors and huge flower arrangements (Batey, 1995, p.23).

In particular, four elements of the Pavilion's interior might point the way towards thinking of it as an exercise in translating garden aesthetics into an interior:

  1. The characteristic confusion of inside/outside. It could, after all, be said that the Pavilion both was inspired by the idea of the sort of temporary party structure in the garden erected by Nash himself for the prince's Carlton House fete in honour of Waterloo, and took the place of such a structure. It was a permanent marquee created especially for parties. The prevalence of ceilings painted to look like skies – as in the Saloon and later the Banqueting Room – and of wallpaper designed to look like trellised veranda or garden pavilion underscores this.

  2. The strong element of fantasy. While there were fantasy interiors (perhaps most notably in the Strawberry Hill Gothick mode), this sort of fantasy has a much more robust history in garden design, including a proliferation of Chinese garden temples and pavilions in the gardens of the wealthy across the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

  3. Its investment in restless, sauntering admiration. This interior is designed as a form of entertainment in itself, and is to be appreciated by walking around the house (rather than, say, sitting down in one place).

  4. Its interest in how the figures of guests interacted with the ‘landscape’ . In the Rococo garden and the great landscape gardens, the guests were expected both to delight in and admire the landscape, and to figure in it to give it scale and to inhabit its scenario. Thus Horace Walpole on visiting the great landscape garden of Stourhead in Wiltshire, embellished with classical temples, rustic hermitage and grotto complete with river god, found himself rather to his disgust embarking in a boat upon the lake for a thoroughly damp English picnic, really because the genre of the garden demanded it. Equally, one of the more notable effects of exotic architecture and furniture was the way they demanded certain stock responses of astonishment, admiration and delight, at the same time incorporating guests into their own fantasy.

    These reactions are gratifyingly expressed by one of Lady Clonbrony's guests at her gala:

The opening of her gala, the display of her splendid reception rooms, the Turkish tent, the Alhambra, the pagoda, formed a proud moment to lady Clonbrony. Much did she enjoy, and much too naturally … did she show her enjoyment of the surprise excited in some and affected by others on their first entrance.

One young, very young lady expressed her astonishment so audibly as to attract the notice of all the bystanders. Lady Clonbrony, delighted, seized both her hands, shook them, and laughed heartily; then, as the young lady with her party passed on, her ladyship recovered herself, drew up her head, and said to the company near her, ‘Poor thing! I hope I covered her little naivete properly. How new she must be!’

Edgeworth's account of the party goes on to describe the ways in which guests are transformed into props within the overall fantasy provided by the decor:

Then, with well practised dignity, and half subdued self-complacency of aspect, her ladyship went gliding about – most importantly busy, introducing my lady this to the sphynx candelabra, and my lady that to the Trebisond trellice; placing some delightfully for the perspective of the Alhambra; establishing others quite to her satisfaction on seraglio ottomans; and honouring others with a seat under the statira canopy.

The guests themselves are to be picturesque, ‘dispersed in happy groups, or reposing on seraglio ottomans, drinking lemonade and sherbet – beautiful Fatimas admiring, or being admired’. The Pavilion furniture similarly insisted upon picturesque Oriental poses. The witty and sophisticated Princess Lieven wrote:

I do not believe that since the days of Heliogabulus there has been such magnificence and luxury. There is something effeminate in it which is disgusting. One spends the evening half-lying on cushions; the lights are dazzling; there are perfumes, music, liqueurs.

[ Heliogabulus is discussed further in section 9 of this unit. ]

(Quoted in Roberts, 1939, p. 110)

As such the Pavilion was itself a sort of extended party game: a stage-set for private theatricals, for a masquerade, for tableaux vivants, with a faintly naughty edge. It was an aristocratically exclusive re-creation of the public delights of Vauxhall Gardens, a place haunted by the prince in his wild youth.