Brighton - 19th Century Seaside Resort

George III in Brighton, by Chantrey.

As well as the important Museum and Art Gallery, Brighton contains much of Victorian interest. Just around the corner from the museum is the famous Brighton Pavilion, an Indian-Orientalist style building with minarets and towers, remodelled by the architect John Nash for the Prince Regent (later George IV). The Pavilion fronts onto a long, wide road with a central grassed area (Old Steine), which contains Victorian fountains and sculpture.

Old Steine

The dominating feature at the sea end of Old Steine is the enormous Victoria Fountain, with two huge bronze bowls, the lower supported on the tails of three large grotesque dolphins. These rest on rocks with a surrounding wide, shallow pool. At first sight the structure looks vulgar, but the falling water is beautiful and the bowls elegant, the conception inspired. The designer was Amon Henry Wilds, an architect of great local importance who built various terraces in Brighton. Almost facing the fountain is no. 26 Old Steine, a Wilds house with Corinthian pillar designs, scallop shells above the lower windows, and at the tops of the pillars, ammonite shapes - a characteristic feature of Wilds's buildings. Other Wilds creations may be seen, for example, in Oriental Place (1825 onwards), Sillwood Place, and his own house in Western Terrace (1827).

Near to the fountain is a stone statue of Burrows (1878), three times mayor of the town - a work possessing some degree of nobility, if blunt in execution. We may also note on the Pavilion side of Old Steine (next to the YMCA) the rather dilapidated Marlborough House - this flat fronted, pedimented and Doric-columned building is by Robert Adam and dates from 1786 Further up the road, past the domes and spikes of the Pavilion, is a fair George IV (1828) in bronze, by Chantrey - it does not seem to be one of his most inspired works. On the opposite side of the road is a Victoria in marble (1897). This one is rather feeble; an inscription on the shallow steps ascribes it to the Sculptured Marble Co., appropriately based in Queen Victoria Street. The Magazine of Art was particularly scathing about this work:

'This statue of Her Majesty the Queen impresses us neither as a portrait or as an example of sculpture. But what can be expected when the commission was placed with a commercial sculptural company which undertakes to supply "busts of statesmen and others executed from photographs", together with stairs, balusters, headstones and other marble works? We have received from them an eulogistic description of the Brighton statue accompanied by a biographical sketch of the "eminent sculptor", which omits his name. Is the eminent sculptor - presumably an Italian - ashamed of his connection with commercial sculpture?'
A much better Victoria is on the seafront towards Hove.

On the opposite side of the road from the Pavilion may be seen Richmond Terrace, with a good Municipal Technical College of 1895, in terracotta with mouldings.

Further on, walking away from the sea, several plinths with their statues missing may be seen, and even the legends on the plinths have been blanked out. As well, a large, derelict fountain makes this section rather abandoned-looking. Further northwards however, there is a good sculpted bowl resting on three small lions.

Two Churches

Carrying on, the road branches and in the centre is a large church, St Peter, by the architect G. F. Bodley and dating from 1858-62. It has a good exterior, with flying buttresses above, and lots of pointy Gothic enhancements like an Oxford College. Inside there is a nice ceiling but the few monuments clustered near the door are of little casual interest - the best being a sardonic bust of Joseph Allan (d.1831) and small angels for Caroline de Lancey (1897). The stained glass is of the 1880s and later.

However, taking the left branch of the road, following the shops, some of which have interesting black and white painted flint fronts, leads to an amazing church (on the left down Anne Street). This is St Bartholomew, one of a series of churches built for a local Catholic cleric, Father Arthur Wagner (1825-1902). This church is on an immense scale, a great brick Gothic church with a Methodist shape without tower. The architect was local - Edmund Scott - and the whole thing was put up in 1892-94. Inside, the height of the roof is even more spectacular. There is an Italian style altar enclosure (called a baldachino) in marble on a suitably large scale, with equally large mosaics centre, left and right - these date from 1911 and are by F. Hamilton Jackson. Most interesting of all are the metalwork fences, candle holders (on free-standing marble pillars) and other metalwork, which is seriously Arts and Crafts, by Henry Wilson, and dates from 1895 through to about 1910. Also by Wilson are the carved marble pulpit, and the metal front of the small altar half way down the side of the church. A good set of Stations of the Cross are of Belgian 19th Century origin, and the confessionals with wooden domes are Russian. The best of the stained glass is below the rose window, above the organ, where there is also a painting of the crucifixion by Soord (a pupil of Herkomer's). Another painting of interest is a Moses in Prayer by Miss Dodson, apparently dating from the 1920s - quite sculptural, and biblical in an illustrative sense characteristic of 1900s books. Note also a small photograph of Wagner.

Piers and sea front

Brighton first achieved popularity in the middle of the 17th Century, and at that time was a day's journey from London by coach. Real expansion came with the Prince Regent choosing the town for his seaside home, and when the railway link to London opened in 1841. For the first time, ordinary Londoners could afford a day-trip to the seaside, and over the next ten years the population increased by 40% and the town boomed. It was in the 19th Century that the great piers were built, and there are two big Victorian ones in Brighton. The first pier was in fact a chain pier, built in 1823, and somewhat over 1000 ft long. It was destroyed in a great storm in 1896.

Chain pier in 1830s Brighton

Eugenius Birch, the pre-eminent Victorian pier designer, built the West Pier, during 1863-66. The Pavilion with its oriental towers dates from the 1890s, and in World War I a concert hall was added. This pier was in good shape until 1965, when it was gradually closed down, fully so by 1975. It was taken over by the West Pier Trust in 1984. Currently it is a wreck, attached to the shore by a thin modern walkway, and until recently, the home of thousands of starlings. Alas, despite many efforts to renovate, storm damage, and most recently a fire, and, according to the newspapers, the hostility of the owners of the other pier, who apparently believe it would be unfair to use public money to support the rebuilding of what might become a competitor, has meant the council has not mustered the will to renovate. It is almost unbelievable that a work of such architectural importance should be allowed to fall to bits like this. The third pier, now called the Palace Pier, an ambitious 1650 ft long, costing nearly 140 thousand pounds, was designed by R. St.George Moore, again using Oriental features to echo the Royal Pavilion. After a cash crisis soon after building commenced in 1891, the pier was completed by Sir John Howard in 1899. Though much covered in modern-day entertainments, the ironwork on this pier is original, and many of the kiosks bear the initials BMMP, standing for Brighton Marine Palace and Pier. Some rather large hotels front onto the beach in the area around the two piers; the white italianate Grand Hotel dates from 1862-64, and the terracotta and red brick Metropole Hotel dates from 1888 and is by Waterhouse.

A walk through to Hove can be made from here along the beach front.

Town Hall and Clock Tower

There are lots of Victorian squares, hotels and more churches in Brighton. An important municipal building is the Town Hall of 1830-32, a doubly-fronted classical building with two levels of classical pillars - Doric first, then Ionic above. The architect was Thomas Cooper. Mention must also be made of the Victoria Clock Tower, centrally placed on the direct route from the station to the beach. This edifice, dating from 1888, is of pink granite and limestone, with corroded limestone figures at each corner, and medallion mosaics of Victoria, Albert, and the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Top of page

Brighton Museum and Art Gallery // Hove Museum and Art Gallery // Victorian art in Britain // Background Information

Home