Written by Maya Watkins ’17
Brighton is a city on the coast of England, about an hour directly south of London. The city is full of amazing street art, including an incredible full-wall mural depicting deceased American and British musicians. The city is the site of some of Banksy’s first works. The beach is covered with rocks rather than sand, which looked almost volcanic, revealing smooth and glassy interiors where they’d broken. The Brighton Pier was full of flashing lights and rides. The day we visited it was gray and overcast (a common forecast in the UK), but it was still a cool city. It was more modern than places like London, where old centuries-old buildings exist alongside new ones. Brighton was a modern city, with the notable exception of the Royal Pavilion.
The Pavilion was a very strange place. It was George IV’s “pleasure palace,” where he would entertain and hold parties in his younger days. It was constructed just after the American Revolution (or the American War of Independence, as the British call it), and may have partly been a reaction to the loss of the thirteen colonies. The Pavilion is built in what you might call a faux-Chinese or faux-Asian style. From the outside, the domed turrets are reminiscent of Indian buildings like the Taj Mahal, but the interior decoration appears to be Chinese. I say, “appears to be,” because there is very little that an actual Chinese person would recognize as authentic to their culture. Dragon motifs abound, repeated many times in every room, pillars and columns are disguised as palm trees, and blue-and-white hall tiles are decorated in a style similar to Japanese pottery. In the grand dining room, a one-ton chandelier is topped by a twelve-foot long dragon. The Pavilion is certainly grand and beautiful, from the graceful spired domes outside to the glitter and color and fantastical dragons inside, but nothing about the building is based in reality.
The whole structure raises questions about the notion of reality. If you’re rich enough to afford such a “pleasure palace” and several other palaces and residences, what is reality to you? A later monarch, Queen Victoria, though the Pavilion was too small. The Pavilion is a mastery of creating your own reality, from the carved mahogany railings and furniture painted to look like bamboo to the invention of a completely fictional culture that seems, at first glance, to be Chinese. The Pavilion is a “based on a true story” sort of building.
The bizzareness of the Pavilion lies in this vast disconnect between the people who built and lived in it and the cultures it appears to represent. The Royal Pavilion is a prime example of the cultural appropriation that accompanied British colonialism. What struck me most about this appropriation in the Pavilion was how frivolous it was. When we talk about colonialism and imperialism, we often talk about oppression within the colonized country, but the Pavilion represents the tendency of imperial powers to take things from conquered countries not only for profit, but for popular consumption – for fun.
Overall, the Royal Pavilion is an excellent demonstration of the British colonial mindset. It certainly shows the careless disrespect with which the British treated the cultures of colonized people, but it also reveals their ideas about reality itself. Namely, that reality can be invented and reinvented based on what is most comfortable for an individual, with no reflection of the reality of the rest of the world. It’s easy to be taken in by the beauty and grandeur of the Royal Pavilion, but it’s important to remember what it really is underneath.