7 Experiencing the exotic
So far we have looked in some detail at the interiors of Nash's Pavilion, with the important exception of the Banqueting Room (decorated by Robert Jones) and the Music Room (decorated by Frederick Crace). Both were designed as coups de theatre and it is this aspect of these rooms that I'd like you to focus upon now.
Return to clip 3 of the video and look again at the Banqueting Room and the Music Room. You may also wish to look at the contemporary depictions of these two rooms in Plates 8 and 11 (see below), and to look at the contemporary guidebook descriptions of the rooms given in the AV Notes. Spend a little time practising picking out the Chinese, Indian, Gothick and neoclassical elements which go to making up this Romantic decor, and then make some notes about what effects the rooms achieve and how this is done. Be especially alert to the possibility of ‘special effects’, such as trompe l'oeil and games with perspective.
Click below to view clip 3 of the video, featuring the Banqueting Room and the Music Room.
Click 'view document' to see plate 8.
Click 'view document' to see plate 11.
Click on 'View document' to read the AV notes for the video clips.
Both rooms, stripped of their decor, turn out to be not at all unlike Soane's neoclassical halls at the Bank of England. Architecturally, they are both domed square spaces with two lateral extensions, classical in spirit and in principle. That said, however, where Soane's rooms are constructed of real arches and real domes, Nash's arches are not actually supporting anything but are mere wall ornaments in relief. And this tricksy quality is perhaps above all what distinguishes the Romantically improbable style of these rooms from Soane's weightiness and insistence on functionality.
The Banqueting Room. The Oriental magnificence of this room deliberately confounds both chinoiserie (e.g. in the dragons, the wall-paintings, the mini-pagodas sheltering the doors and painted on them) and the Indian (expressed most strongly in the ceiling conceit of the trompe l'oeil plantain tree and the lotus glass shades of the huge and dazzling central chandelier). The mixing of the two styles provokes a dramatic conflict between the glamorized violence of the writhing monsters and the sentimental and delicate domesticity of the panels depicting Chinese life.
Jones here achieves a distinctively Regency effect compounded of massive scale and overpowering detail. Entering the Banqueting Room from the Chinese gallery – low-ceilinged and bewilderingly and disorientatingly mirrored – is an astonishing experience. Dreamlike, the scale suddenly expands from the human to the enormous, and the effect is heightened by the apparent glimpse of sky at the apex of the dome. These games of scale also on occasion included miniaturization. The prince briefly brought in the extraordinary talents of Marie-Antoine Careme, the greatest cook of his day, tempted over from France to act as royal chef in the Pavilion's extraordinarily technically advanced kitchens. The confectionery set-pieces for which he was famous were characteristically fantasy buildings in miniature. They included La ruine de la mosquee turque (ruin of a Turkish mosque) and L'hermitage chinois (Chinese hermitage), made in icing-sugar and set under that astonishing dome. Generally, much of the effect of this room results from the repetition of the same images but on multiple scales: notice, for example, how the lotus and the dragon are repeated.
The Music Room. Again, the scheme for this is late chinoiserie – and as it is designed by Crace it is lighter in feel. Some of the same tricks of scale are also in evidence here in order to astonish guests. These too are centred on the ceiling, which as you will have seen is built up of gilded cockleshells. An effect of greater height was achieved by diminishing the size of the cockleshells towards the apex of the dome, and by changing the tones of the gilding towards the apex. Less obviously, the wall-paintings evoked for contemporaries paintings on Chinese lacquer boxes: the effect was therefore to shrink the spectator within a Chinese miniature grown gigantic. Again, too, the room repeats the same motifs: of serpents, lotus and dragon, varying in scale and prominence, but providing a unifying feeling. The painstaking detailing has a faintly dreamlike effect – fix your eyes on the wallpaper, and sooner or later you are aware that you are looking at a dog-headed serpent, for example. Like the Banqueting Room, the Music Room also intermingles images of extreme violence (manifested in the writhing serpents and dragons) with the domestic or rural idyll, often featuring children. The juxtaposition is more than merely piquant; it introduces a characteristically Romantic tension that we'll come back to below.
We might also remark on some other ‘special effects’ built into the Pavilion which don't necessarily strike us with the force with which they certainly would have struck contemporaries. The Pavilion was very efficiently and invisibly heated via underfloor heating, an innovation which visitors then found rather stifling.
The oil-fired lighting was startlingly profuse, intense and brilliant in an era of candlelight; the thick fitted carpets deadened sound to an unusual extent; the daring and extreme colour harmonies, the many and varied faux surfaces, and the use of gas-fired backlighting behind stained-glass panels all heightened the experience, said by one contemporary observer, Mrs Creevey, to be like being inside the Arabian Nights (see the AV Notes).
Together with the use of interrupted vista and perspective, of dreamlike repetition and multiplication, of mirrors, of trompe l'oeil and of wildly inflated and metamorphic scale, the effect must have been phantasmagoric. With the addition of perfumes and music, the atmosphere was famously heady.
So far I have been concentrating upon the differences between the various rooms in the Pavilion, and upon the differences between the interiors and the exteriors. But although this has been useful for the sake of argument, it is not the whole story. For all that the Comtesse de Boigne was right in her disdainful identification of the styles of the Pavilion as ‘heterogeneous’, John Evans's remark that the Pavilion's details echoed each other from the smallest to the grandest is equally true (see the AV Notes). Looked at carefully, it becomes clear that all the different room interiors have been designed to echo each other, and to repeat shapes from the exterior too.
Look once more at all three video clips. Watch them right through and, as you do so, make a list of recurrent motifs and try to sketch repeated shapes. Don't forget that the overall shape may be the same, even if it is reduced, enlarged, inverted, or pretending to be something else (e.g. a bell and a tassel may actually be the same shape, and serve the same function within the decorative scheme, while having different connotations).
Click below to view clip 1 of the video.
Click below to view clip 2 of the video.
Click below to view clip 3 of the video.
The easiest thing to do is to make a list of motifs that recur: these include dragons, serpents, bamboo, sunflowers, stars, bells and tassels. It is more difficult to identify the shapes. My list includes:
what I shall inelegantly call ‘bobbles’ (which line the parapet on the exterior and the chandeliers in the Music Room, to take two examples);
bell shapes which, when inverted, turn into flower shapes, or, when multiplied, become pagodas;
curves flouncing round the Moorish windows and repeated on the cornice of the Entrance Hall and round the mirrors in the Saloon;
fretwork of every sort;
leaves growing both up and down (compare the base of the columns on the exterior, the leaves crowning the cupolas and the leaves on the plantain tree in the Banqueting Room, for example);
spiky star shapes;
reiterated scallops – as in the Saloon wallpaper and the Music Room dome.
The effect of this ‘reiteration with variation’ is undoubtedly to amplify the dreamlike sense of impending metamorphosis that the Pavilion achieves – you might note, for example, the effect of the way that acanthus leaves turn into dragon manes in the Banqueting Room.
This repetition of shapes and motifs produces a remarkably unified architectural ‘vocabulary’ throughout the building, despite the different overall effects that the rooms achieve. You might also have noticed the way that the costumes worn by our actors in the video echo and are at home among those apparently outre Regency shapes, combining the upward thrust of feathers (compare the flirting tufts at the top of the exterior windows on Sezincote House, for example), the long slender drag of the trains flowing away like serpents’ tails, and the horizontal lines of the bodices that double the severities of the Chinese-style fretwork.
The costumes look so at home because, idiosyncratic though the Pavilion certainly is and aspired to be, it is grounded within a definite and recognizable Regency aesthetic. George Cruikshank's satiric print The Beauties of Brighton (see Plate 21 makes this point too, though the clothes are from a slightly later year, 1826.
Click on 'View document' to see plate 21 George Cruikshank's The Beauties of Brighton.
Indeed, the artist has a lot of fun with pointing up parallels such as the tails of the gentleman's coat which reiterate the tent-like structure on the Pavilion, the top hats echoed in the minarets, and the puffy skirts and sleeves that suggest the domes. The Pavilion, this suggests, was paradoxically both exotic and mainstream in its aesthetic.