The amorous, exuberant George IV, when still Prince Regent, began building a retreat to suit his own fancy. The result was Brighton Pavilion, perhaps the most exotic extravaganza to survive time’s decay. ….
Lying in the very heart of Brighton, close to the seashore but set back from it, is the fantasy of the Brighton Pavilion- with its domes and minarets, its fretwork tracery and lacelike embattlements; and underneath this Oriental masquerade , the fine proportions of Henry Holland’s classical villa, the first Pavilion, can still be discerned, as Georgian and as classical as any house in Brighton. It was built by the Prince Regent ( 1762-1830) , the eldest son of George III, and like the Prince the Pavilion grew more monstrous, more extraordinary, more dreamlike with the years. But first, why should the Pavilion be found in Brighton?
Three hundred years ago, Brighton scarcely existed. It was excellent country for the horse, for riding it, racing it, or driving it. And that later, was one of the reasons for Brighton’s popularity, for many of the Prince’s friends were crazed about horses as only the English aristocracy can be. But Brighton first grew to fame and fashion through the salesmanship of a successful doctor. He sold sea water. Its virtues said Dr. Russell, whether applied externally or internally, were boundless. A cold dip , it seemed, proved peculiarly efficacious to that feminine frailty of the age of elegance- the vapors- so long as it was taken at hideously appropriate times: Fanny Burney, the novelist, bathed in November before dawn, a very good time, the doctors thought. Also, as might be expected, sea-bathing or sea drinking encourage fertility in young matrons. “better even,” said its advocates, “than the mud of the river Nile.”
The Prince Regent’s first visit to Brighton-a short one-took place in 1783 at the invitation of his uncle the Duke of Cumberland, whom the Prince’s father, George III, regarded with such horror that he had forbidden his son to visit him. As soon as the Prince was twenty-one, with his own establishment, and free to please himself, he had accepted Cumberland’s invitation with alacrity. The visit proved hugely successful, for Brighton seemed to offer all that the Prince needed. He found Brighton gay, intimate, discreet. It was still too far from London for crowds to gather there: his own set could, and did, take over the place.
So Brighton became the Prince’s playground. He and his friends were fond of vulgar and noisy practical jokes on their neighbors. Who could stop them in Brighton? They raced their horses and drove their phaetons in mad competition across the wide lawns that bordered the sea. No one was likely to complain. Girls were there for adventure, and occasionally the men even sat in the ice cold water themselves when they thought their health demanded it. They gambled endlessly, gazed at plays, danced, listened with respect to the Prince’s fine baritone as he regaled them with ballads, drank furiously, ate gigantically, and wenched interminably.
And they dressed. The Prince possessed a handsome florid face, a splendid, if slightly plump figure, and first-class legs, of which he was inordinately proud. He was even prouder of his taste in clothes, formed and guided by his friend Beau Brummell, who had revolutionized the Englishman’s dress by insisting on subdued colors, perfect cut, and exquisite linen as the marks of elegance. Only in the evening, on full-dress occasions, were princes and nobles permitted to dress like peacocks. But clothes and the wearing of them was a matter for daily concern and long discussion.
Princes and their friends , after settling on a place like a cloud of butterflies often gorge themselves on its nectar and then flutter away to stimulate their appetites in fresh pastures. This time, however, fate riveted the Prin
o Brighton. He fell in love with a dangerously unusual widow-Mrs. Fitzherbert. Mrs. Fitzherbert was a Roman Catholic- pious, virtuous, very comely. She neither welcomed the Prince’s attentions nor responded to his ardor. She preferred to be left alone. The Prince’s siege grew hectic: he swore, he cajoled, he promised; presents rained on her, letters pursued her, finally marriage trapped her. Conducted in utmost secrecy, it was, of course, illegal.
No prince of the British royal family could marry without the sovereign’s consent; no consent could have been forthcoming from George III for a marriage to a Roman Catholic widow. On the Prince’s part the ceremony was a meaningless folly; on hers, the necessary religious sanction to her bedding with the Prince. In Mrs. Fitzherbert’s eyes, and in the eyes of her church and her fellow believers, the Prince was her husband. In English law, she could be nothing but his mistress. The Prince of course, flaunted his conquest but strenuously denied, even to a friend as close as Charles James Fox, the method by which he had achieved it.
Nevertheless, rumors reverberated, and George III, never a man of easy temper, regarded his son with so prejudiced an eye that he left him to marinate in his debts. During his frantic courtship the Prince, according to Lord Holland, had rolled in grief on Charles James Fox’s floor, crying by the hour and “swearing that he would abandon the country, forgo the crown, sell his jewels, and scrape together a competence to fly with her to America.” Instead of which, once wed, he drove off in an ostentatious austerity to Brighton and installed Mrs. Fitzherbert conveniently near the farmhouse that he had begun to regard as his own.
As soon a Parliament accepted the denials of the Prince’s friends about his marriage, persuaded the King to grant him 10,000 more a year and to settle his debts, the Prince was able to devote himself to love, architecture, and interior decoration which, with food, drink and music were to be the obsessions of his life. For more than forty years he pursued all of them at the Pavilion that he built for himself at Brighton, or rather, that he went on building at Brighton, for like all compulsive builders and decorators, the Prince was never finished.
Indeed, when the Pavilion was at last completed, the Prince, by the King George IV, lost interest in it and gave his attention to Windsor, where, with both the Castle and the Royal Lodge on his hands, he could fully occupy both his old age and his regal income.