Turner in Brighton
J. M. W. Turner: “Moonlight over the sea at Brighton”, c.1796
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Mention the name Brighton and the first thing most people are likely to think of is the onion-domed Royal Pavilion. The twenty-one-year-old George, Prince of Wales first visited the pleasure town in 1783 (then boasting a population of 7,000 or so), and in 1787 he asked Henry Holland to convert a farmhouse he had taken a lease on into a neo-classical villa. On becoming Prince Regent in 1811, he commissioned John Nash “to enlarge the building further”, according to the visitor’s brochure. “Between 1815 and 1822 it was transformed into the present Pavilion, with an exterior inspired by Indian architecture” – but without the benefit of the brilliant Indian sun to set it off (the stone can look very dull on a grey day). But the real interest is inside: the orientalist decor, including mahogany handrails made to look like bamboo, and elaborate chinoiserie, the opulent Banqueting Room and magnificent Kitchen, the giddying Music Room, a riot of brilliant colours.
When did Brighthelmston(e) become plain Brighton? In 1769 Boswell wrote of Johnson being “at Brighthelmstone with Mr. and Mrs. Thrale”. Later, Johnson, in a letter to Mr. Robert Levett from Brighthelmstone on Oct. 21, 1776, revealed that he “did not go into the sea till last Friday, but think to go most of this week, though I know not that it does me any good . . . ” (in late October!). By 1779 it was Brighthelmston without the final “e”: “Mr. Thrale goes to Brighthelmston, about Michaelmas, to be jolly and ride a hunting . . .”, Johnson wrote to Boswell on September 9, 1779. In 1780 he was admitting to Boswell “I do not much like the place”.
Turner probably first visited Brighton in 1796. By the time he visited again in 1824 at the age of forty-nine the fashionable watering hole had become the fastest-growing town in England, its population swelled to 24,000. Turner’s rival John Constable grumbled that the beach was “Piccadilly by the sea-side”. Turner was later to say of Constable’s paintings of the sea off Brighton, “he knows nothing about the sea”. Constable spent much of the summer of 1824 on the South Coast whereas Turner appears to have stayed no more than a couple of days that year, recording his impressions in a notebook.
The Royal Pavilion & Museums in January 2012 acquired Turner’s Southern Coast watercolours (at auction at Christies in New York). The works are on display in the Pavilion in a mini exhibition (one room) until March 2014.
Most striking are Turner’s depictions of the Royal Suspension Chain Peer, the first of Brighton’s three peers, which was “intended to overcome the lack of a natural harbour, and to provide a landing stage for larger vessels, especially the steamboats that crossed the Channel to Dieppe”. It “extended out to sea for 350 yards on four platforms with cast-iron pedimented pylons . . . . Eight massive chains were used to stabilise the pier” until “it was destroyed in a storm in 1896” (Brighton is down to one pier now, the second having been almost entirely destroyed in a fire – the fate of all too many piers around the country).
“The Chain Peer at Brighton” (with Pavilion in the centre), 1824
As Ian Warrell writes in an informative brochure to accompany the small show, “the most curious detail . . . is the appearance of the Royal Pavilion. Turner’s pencil sketches reveal that it was impossible to see more than its minarets from the pier. But he wanted to combine all of Brighton’s attractions in one scene. To achieve this he removed the seafront terrace that obscured the Royal Pavilion, and then . . . distorted the position of the palace, suggesting it sits by the water”. In June 1824, the Somerset House Gazette wrote of Turner’s Southern Coast series: “We have no hesitation in saying, that for masterly effect, splendour, and painter-like feeling, on copper, they surpass any works of the same class, of every age and every school!”
In 1828 Turner embarked on a second trip to Rome from Brighton, and a couple of years later sketched in nearby Rottingdean and Newhaven (now a major cross-Channel port). By the 1840s the railway from London reached Brighton, via the Ouse Valley Viaduct at Balcombe (the scene of recent anti-fracking protests), a masterpiece of Victorian engineering (below).
But Turner had by now transferred his preferences from Brighton to Margate, a town which is said to be undergoing a regeneration with the 2011 opening of the Turner Contemporary gallery.