Katie Byrne visits George IV’s ‘pleasure palace’.
King George IV – decadent playboy uncle of Victoria – was fat. Very, very fat.
This is the inescapable fact that haunts every (gold-plated) room of the Royal Pavilion, and the title of its most recent exhibition, Dress For Excess, could thus be interpreted in two ways. Yes, the Georgians were hugely extravagant when it came to their fashion – the men wore corsets on their legs, we were informed by an eyebrow raising curator – but George IV, with his 55″ waist, took excess to whole new extremes. Yes, the curator went on to inform us, there were 40-course meals served every night when George was staying in the Pavilion and, yes, he was indeed so fat that he needed a small tray to carry his stomach around – but he had a lot of fun, and a reputation – as an indulgent Prince Regent and then equally extravagant monarch – to maintain.
As Georgie bleated in his diary at the age of 16: ‘He is rather above the common size’ (Oh, to be majestic enough to refer to oneself in the third person and not appear insane…Adrian Mole, he ain’t).
The Pavilion is Brighton’s greatest landmark, and is really quite bizarre. From the outside, it is a Taj Mahal, looming out amongst a host of red-brick homes and bus-stops. Seagulls perch on its minaret-inspired turrets, and palmtrees sway in the breeze as the 25 to Woodingdean chunders past.
Inside, it is a visual feast. Sumptuous wall decorations – jade-green dragons whoosh around the ceilings, and crystal chandeliers twinkle – and an Oriental-theme add up to present a setting so rich and luxurious that when George IV first set eyes on it, he apparently burst into tears. We weren’t allowed to take photographs when inside, but a quick search on the Internet will show you what we mean.
The Dress For Excess exhibition is the perfect opportunity to find out more about Georgian fashions. I will confess to being totally ignorant regarding this period. Whilst I can list the wives of Henry VIII in order, go into great detail about the English Civil War and recite the monarchy from 1066 onwards, I know absolutely nothing about the Regency period beyond what I have read in Jane Austen novels. And even then, all I really know is that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Or something.
My favourite items included George’s robe from his 1820 coronation, unseen by the public for over 30 years; and we were also rather touched to notice that he wore an ‘informal’ nightgown when at home. And, being predictably childish, we are, once again, going to mention the 55″ breeches that he wore towards the end of his life, when the huge dinners, gallons of alcohol and hours of lazing on a chaise longue finally began to catch up on him. The walls were dotted with Regency cartoons, many of which picked up on George’s appearance, and his rather scandalous attitude towards women (let’s just put it this way: his wife never came with him to the Pavilion, which was known at the time as George’s ‘pleasure palace’).
The exhibition was pretty small: most of it was located in one, dimly-lit room, with a glass case in the middle and various other bits scattered around the edges. The first thing to catch my eye was a rather neat quote from author William Thackeray, describing George IV as ‘the handsomest prince in the whole world, [a fact] agreed by men, and alas! by many women’. Yes, he was morbidly obese but hey – who would say no to a king?
Dress for Excess: Fashion in Regency England is running at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton from February 2011-February 2012. Ticket prices vary, and more information can be found here.