Picture Galleries outside London: Brighton Art Gallery and Museum

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Picture Galleries outside London: Brighton Art Gallery and Museum


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


The Dome at Brighton was built between 1804 and 1808 by William Porden in a fanciful 'Asiatick' style, as a Riding School with ancillary stables, at the behest of the future King George IV. Soon afterwards John Nash converted the Royal Pavilion itself into a less sombre (indeed, elfin and delectable) variation on Porden's heavy edifice; although the landscape gardener Humphrey Repton, who helped to design the Pavilion, praised Porden's pioneering work as 'a stupendous and magnificent building'. George IV tired of his new abode, but his successor, William IV, enjoyed its proximity to the sea and the shaky Chain Pier on which the 'Sailor King' felt thoroughly at home.

Queen Victoria sold the whole Pavilion Estate of her 'wicked uncles' to the municipality of Brighton in 1850. From 1856 onwards its vast stables, now regrettably converted into the Dome Theatre, provided space for a museum. Twelve years later the former cavalry headquarters were cleared and designated a picture gallery, mainly for temporary exhibitions, distinct from the museum. In 1902 a permanent collection was assembled from pictures in the overcrowded Pavilion, with additions from philanthropic Brighton collectors. To these Henry Willett, a brewer by trade but a scholar by vocation, munificently added over sixty Old Masters. With the accretion of further gifts, the Curator was justified in claiming, in his catalogue of 1964, that 'in its admirable premises' the picture gallery contained 'a display of national importance. . . representative of European art'. That is no longer so.

The opposite of Midas's touch has been applied, marvellously turning gold into dross. One wonders if some catastrophic tidal wave has washed the flotsam of the Brighton lanes into the picture gallery, bearing off masterpieces and leaving a deposit of the recent antiques which are rife among some of the second-hand dealers in the town. The Dome Theatre, an ever-encroaching shrine of vulgarity, is concerned with 'Getting our arts together', as it announces in the livid posters which sully the elegance of the Pavilion site. One recent contribution to the arts was Girls' Night Out, illustrated with demotic humour on the billboards with a design of naked male buttocks smeared with lipstick.

Into other parts of the building the Brighton Corporation has frugally crammed a public library, unconnected with the fine arts, which clearly required a larger site; also an 'Education Centre' (in effect a creche, where returning mothers can admire their infants' finger-paintings) and a gallery of minor oriental art-objects. The corridors and stairs are daubed with red Man Friday footprints to beguile visitors from one disaster to another. Downstairs a portrait by Zoffany is hung in the passage leading to the primitive lavatories, and the main hall is occupied by Art Deco furniture and knickknacks, with pictures so mediocre that it hardly matters that they are hung so high. On the staircase simper a pair of arch Alma Tademas in a Victorian approximation to Ancient Rome. Nearby hangs one of the many replicas of Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait of George IV in his Garter robes, said to have been discarded by the Athenaeum Club as a result of Thackeray's scornful account of him, not wholly justified, in The Four Georges.

The balcony across the main hall, resolutely invaded by a teashop, boasts an Esias van der Velde, an Aert van der Neer and a cheerful but dubious Nicolaes Maes obscured behind the cramped tables and chairs occupied by the customers. These are the most expensive decorations of any teashop in the land. To one side is a small gallery of paintings, no more than competent, from the same 'jazz age' as the bibelots in the main hall. One's main objection to them is that they occupy space which could be used for masterpieces now withheld from the public, such as works by Francesco Botticini, Lorenzo Costa and Michael Wolgemut. One would like to know what has happened to those Old Masters. …

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