Pavilion Unseen Royal Pavilion Brighton

Pavilion Unseen

During the 1820s, the Royal Pavilion was more than simply a sumptuous playground for an errant king. Effectively it was an elaborate and magical stage set, upon which the strata of society played out their roles. Royalty, the aristocracy and the political elite conducted their affairs of state (and no doubt heart) within these offices.

In support was an entire retinue of staff – from chambermaids and footmen through to cooks and stable-hands. Their role was to ensure the smooth running of this most extraordinary building – a palace designed and created by the leading architect of the day (John Nash) and on such an epic, theatrical scale that it arguably defied imagination.

In the king’s time, as night fell the Banqueting Room would have been alive with guests; the Great Kitchen frantic with staff activity, whilst the bedrooms were busily being prepared. The Royal Pavilion was not only the backdrop to the geographic centre of Brighton, it was a living cross-section of the social order and of society within.

The enduring charm of the Royal Pavilion today is that although the social order has changed, the palace still lies at the cultural heart of the city. With scores of visitors by day and in the evening, the palace continues to offer the most gorgeous backdrop for guests attending events.

However it is only come true nightfall, when the palace doors are finally closed, that the Royal Pavilion offers a rare and fleeting intimacy with her past. As you pass alone through the silent rooms, with the original stage remaining so exquisitely prepared, one almost anticipates that the players are in attendance. They wait patiently amongst the shadows, yearning to walk back onto the set and reclaim their time; but their moment has passed. The players can never return.

Meanwhile the surrounding city is more alive and frenetic than ever. Amongst this rare silence it feels as if all the vitality, both physical and cultural, that once lay at the heart of the Royal Pavilion has now been transferred to the outside. In the early 19th century, all the energy and light was emanating out from the building. Now the rooms lie still and any illumination is derived from the busy streets beyond the building’s walls.

The Pavilion Unseen project sets out to capture this transfer of energy and social structure from one domain to another through a series of images taken of the Royal Pavilion at night, using only available light.

The images represent a journey. Starting at the Old Steine – seen through the oval window in the Bottle (the largest onion dome at the top of the Palace), which historically was the servants’ quarters. We then descend down the servants’ hidden spiral staircase and continue into the Great Kitchen.

From here we proceed directly to the magnificent Banqueting Room, through to the Music Room and back up into Queen Victoria’s bedroom. Finally back out into the grounds of what would have been the private gardens and royal stables (now a public park, the museum and the Dome theatre).

All the while on this journey, the city is alive with light and vitality. For whilst the palace sleeps, the players wait to reclaim the stage. Once their palace of pleasure – now, in darkness simply a Pavilion Unseen.

Conversely this is not a sad journey. It is a positive one concerned with continual beauty set against a simple transfer of social and physical energy. The images serve to prove that the Royal Pavilion still sits at the heart of the city both geographically and culturally; and that it remains an integral part of our city’s spirit and identity.

Michael C Hughes
With thanks to the Royal Pavilion, Brighton