Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Brighton Pavilion
Brighton Pavilion

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

9 What the world said – or, the politics of the exotic

So far we have mostly been concerned with the making of the Pavilion, treating it as a product of the confluence between the prince's virtuoso taste, his fluctuating reserves of cash and his patronage of the talents of a series of architects and designers, especially John Nash. We have also remarked in passing that the flamboyant idiosyncrasy of the Pavilion seems to be attributable in large part to the prince's nostalgia for absolutism, expressed in an era of constitutional monarchy and seemingly ever-impending revolution.

‘Oriental despotism’ had had very negative connotations of barbarism and arbitrariness throughout the eighteenth century, but here George seems to have been revaluing it in relation to his own power. Indeed, across Europe the Oriental exotic seems to have been an aesthetic linked by supporters as well as critics to the restoration of hereditary monarchies (this, at any rate, is one possible reading of the court theatricals designed around the dramatization of Lalla Rookh in Berlin in 1822).

The prince's fantasy of his role as monarch, as we have also remarked, must have been much strengthened by the financial realities of Britain's growing empire in the East. Although we have taken a look at Hazlitt's and Lamb's passing comments, we have not yet extensively considered what everyone else at the time thought about it. To do this is to think about the Pavilion principally as a cultural and political fact within early nineteenth-century British culture.

From very early on the Pavilion was itself an attraction, and by 1809 it appears that it was intermittently open to the polite and paying public. Certainly its interiors were of considerable interest to the public, if we can judge by the blow-by-blow descriptions of them given over many pages in Attree's Topography of Brighton (1809). In January 1820 came ticketed admission to the state apartments.

Exercise 14

Turn to the selection of contemporary verdicts upon the Pavilion, organized chronologically, made by insiders and outsiders (below). You will also find some pictorial comments in Plates 2223 (also below). Study them carefully, and then make some notes about what you can deduce from this evidence about contemporary views of the monarchy.

Click on 'View document' to read some contemporary opinions of the pavilion in Brighton.

opinions.pdf85.2KB PDF document
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Click on 'View document' to see plates 22 and 23, pictorial comments on the pavilion.

plates22and23.pdf168.7KB PDF document
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


The comments begin to be more disapproving the more outre and extravagant the Pavilion becomes both inside and outside. Although John Evans makes a spirited attempt to constitute the prince's whim into something that redounds to the nation's credit, the more general tone is one of moral disapproval of frivolity and self-indulgence, a strong tendency to refuse to admire princely dignity and instead to regard the Pavilion as bizarre and downright unBritish. This is the effect of those insistent comparisons of the domes to turnips, the minarets to extinguishers and the like: they point up how thoroughly non-indigenous and aggressively useless the building was.

Critics had a point. Despite that interesting remark of the prince's to the effect that he chose the Chinese style over traditionally Whiggish Neoclassicism for fear of being thought ‘Jacobinical’ (i.e. sympathizing with the French revolutionaries), and despite his shock conversion to his father's political allegiance to Toryism (both actual and imaginative) on taking power in 1811, the Pavilion was very evidently a fancy-dress holiday from those responsible and ‘official’ styles associated historically either with the aristocracy or with the monarchy.

From being a fantasy of escape from his father's authority, it had become an escape from the circumscribed realities of constitutional monarchy. In the teeth of the scandal of George's treatment of his estranged queen, culminating in the (ultimately aborted) divorce proceedings against her in 1820, and more generally in the context of severe agricultural depression, of the post-war slump, and of the great hardship and widespread agitation produced by the Industrial Revolution and the urbanization that came with it, the Pavilion was inflammatory.

As ‘Humphrey Hedgehog’ (the pseudonym of John Agg) was to write in The Pavilion; or, A Month in Brighton (1817) not long before the Peterloo riots in Manchester:

In the midst of the most aggravated public distress, when penury and woe walk the streets hand in hand, and thousands are actually starving, the prodigalities of those great ones of the earth … present a fair field for satire … the dazzling and cleansing fire of patriotism has dwindled into the impure and unwholesome flame of self-interest, and every better feeling and principle appear to be entirely merged and lost in the giddy and intoxicating vortex of sensuality.

(Hedgehog, 1817, vol.I, pp.10–11)

‘Hedgehog’ does his best to convert his prince through his experiences as ‘a Caliph in disguise’, bringing him to admit that he ‘had in too many instances, preferred private enjoyment to the welfare of the state’ and to resolve to do some ‘patriotic good’ (Hedgehog, 1817, vol.II, pp.174–5, 177).

But the Pavilion's insouciance and arrogance, its utter lack of restraint, its dubious flavour, viewed in the context of similar Romantic fantasy narratives invested in the East and its not entirely respectable pleasures, seemed to need a catastrophic ending to provide a properly moral outcome.

The Princess Lieven's remarks likening the prince to Heliogabulus, which we've already noted, are equally a stinging critique of the outlandishness of his taste and of the questionable morality of power thus imagined. Heliogabulus, as the educated would have known, was a Roman emperor who, during his brief four-year reign, became notorious for ‘inexpressible infamy’ including transvestism and homosexuality. In the magisterial words of the historian Edward Gibbon, ‘Rome was at length humbled beneath the effeminate luxury of Oriental despotism’ (Gibbon, 1998, pp.130, 128).

Before he was assassinated, his career as portrayed by Gibbon has a whiff of the Prince Regent's, at least as described by his many critics:

A capricious prodigality supplied the want of taste and elegance; and, whilst Elagabulus [sic] lavished away the treasures of his people in the wildest extravagance, his own voice and that of his flatterers applauded a spirit and a magnificence unknown to the tameness of his predecessors.

(Gibbon, 1998, p.130)

If judgement overtook both Belshazzar and Heliogabulus in the midst of their sensual excesses, so too did it overcome the villain caliphs of many important contemporary Romantic fantasy narratives. Two will do to make the point – Beckford's novel Vathek and Southey's poem The Curse of Kehama. In Vathek, for example, the cruel sensualist caliph finally makes his way to the subterranean halls of Eblis, where he discovers the worthlessness of the riches and luxuries he has lusted and searched after, and is punished for his sins when his own heart and the hearts of all the damned burst into flames in their living bodies.

Southey's equally cruel and part-supernatural Rajah Kehama eventually finds himself under the dominion of the lord of hell. In flat contradiction therefore to the princely complacency of the Pavilion, Orientalist tales, poems and paintings of the period are typically and variously critical of despotism, whether enlightened, Napoleonic or Bourbon. Such is one reading of Delacroix's vast and controversial canvas The Death of Sardanapalus (1827–8), derived in part from Byron's drama critical of tyranny, Sardanapalus (1821).

Just before you move on in your studies, however, you should pause to consider what key points you might take away from this unit. Here are some questions for you to chew on to help you do this.

How has your study of the Pavilion changed or elaborated the picture of the period that you have been building up? Does it, for example, suggest that Romanticism was not monolithic, that there were lots of different kinds and understandings of what was Romantic, and that some of them might even have been mutually contradictory? Does it suggest that not everyone was living in a ‘Romantic’ fashion in the so-called Romantic age? Or does it suggest that everyone and everything was subtly altered by what Hazlitt was to call so memorably ‘the spirit of the age’ so that even the monarchy, that relic of an older age, could fall victim to a Romantically alienated individualism?

If these questions baffle you at this stage, then you are welcome to set them aside, but if they prompt you to look back over this unit before moving on, that will be all to the good!