Preserving the Royal Pavilion

The Royal Pavilion is one of the most popular historic buildings in the country. More than 400,000 people visit each year. But its continued existence is down to much hard work by its conservation and fundraising teams, as we find out here

Completed in 1823, by the architect John Nash, the exotic, oriental fantasy that is the Royal Pavilion is a testament to the flamboyant character and sophisticated taste of George IV, its discerning patron.

Over the years, it has played a key role in the development of Brighton and its international reputation. Unlike most palaces and country houses, the Royal Pavilion was conceived as a “work of art”, designed as an entity, with no accumulation of Old Masters or disparate objects and collections.

The extravagant interior decor represents the apogee of “chinoiserie” in this country. It was orchestrated from the floor up, building to a climax in the magnificent ceilings of the Banqueting and Music Rooms. The rich decorative schemes, combined with the superb quality of the furniture and furnishings, created a magnificent and appropriate setting for the new monarch to entertain his guests in lavish style.

John Nash, an audacious genius, created a building at the forefront of early 19th century technology. The Pavilion was one of the first structures to use cast-iron. The framework of the domes, cones, minarets and sweeping concave tent roofs that survive to this day, were made in this new material.

However, some of Nash’s achievements have posed problems in maintaining the building: the drainage pipes are concealed in the structure of the building, and water can penetrate the complex of roofs and light-wells. The iron, which rusts and expands, must be constantly monitored, and requires regular painting to protect it from adverse weather conditions. 

Bath stone was used to clad the building. It is porous, which can make the structure unstable causing the stonework to fracture. Nash knew this, but George wanted beauty – rather than longevity – and now the stonework needs ongoing care.

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It was not originally envisaged that the Royal Pavilion would survive more than 200 years. However, the Pavilion is fortunate in having one of the finest conservation teams in the country. Their work, together with the researches of curators, enables today’s visitors to experience the palace much as George IV’s guests would have done.

Tim Thearle, Senior Keeper of the Royal Pavilion, leads a very dedicated team of six conservators and their assistants, who combine a scientific approach with artistic talent. Their range of expertise includes: the care and restoration of carved, painted or gilded furniture and objects, Chinese and English historic wallpapers, paintings on canvas and glass, and also preventive and structural conservation.

The skilled work of the conservators can be seen throughout the Pavilion. For instance, in 1975 the Music Room was severely damaged by an arson attack. Through meticulous craftsmanship, supported by research into archive material, it has been returned to its former glory. The carved, painted dragons, the chandeliers and coving have been restored; and Norman Stevens, who has worked at the Royal Pavilion for 32 years, was one of the team who regilded the burnt 26,000 plaster shells in the domed ceiling.

A magnificent carpet, and sumptuous replica curtains, were recreated from original fragments and historic documents. The large wall canvases, with ‘chinoiserie’ scenes delicately depicted in gold and yellow, on a rich red background, survived the fire. However, they need regular repair as the plaster of the supporting walls has deteriorated. This is undertaken by Janet Brough, conservator for paintings and decorative surfaces.

Lighting, by day as well as by night, plays a key role in creating the theatrical atmosphere of the Pavilion. Painted glass is integral to the decor, but paint on glass has a very limited life. Its restoration, which began even before George was resident in the Pavilion, is a continuous undertaking today, the responsibility of Anne Sowden, decorative artist and glass conservator.

She explains: “Some chandeliers and lanterns have been restored a number of times, for instance, the Chinese figures on the central chandelier in the Music Room. We have also recently cleaned the magnificent 30 foot chandelier in the Banqueting Room, which is held in the claws of a silvered dragon. Visitors gasp at their first sight of this wonderful piece of art, as it now dazzles with all its original sparkle,”

Tim Thearle comments: “The interior of the Royal Pavilion incorporates so much intricate detail that it cannot be appreciated in just one visit. People who return several times, to explore it more thoroughly, are quite thrilled by the extent of its inventiveness, and have expressed real appreciation of the exceptional skills necessary to preserve it.”

Maintaining this iconic building requires not only many skills, but also finances. The Royal Pavilion receives generous support from Brighton & Hove City Council, but with increasing financial pressures on public services, additional income must also be raised from charitable sources. The Royal Pavilion & Museums Foundation is a registered charity which helps to raise funds to support the work of the conservation team and their colleagues.BECOME A MEMBERBecome a member and you can visit the Royal Pavilion as many times as you like. Your membership will help the Royal Pavilion & Museums Foundation to conserve the Royal Pavilion, and also contribute to our exhibitions and education programmes, bringing the very best of art and culture to Brighton & Hove.Membership from �23 will give you:FREE unlimited entry to the Royal Pavilion and Preston Manor FREE  entry to Museum exhibitionsInvitations to Private Views and a regular NewsletterExclusive events programme; reduced prices for all other events and the Royal Pavilion ice rink20% discount in Museum and Royal Pavilion shops

To join visit or telephone 01273 292789

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