74 The quest for His Majesty’s silk
The current restoration of the Saloon at the Brighton Pavilion faced a major challenge, reveals Annabel Westman
The current restoration of the Saloon at the Brighton Pavilion faced a major challenge in re-creating this spectacular Regency room, as none of its original ‘Geranium and Gold Colour’ silk was known to survive. Annabel Westman reveals the detective story that led to its rediscovery
BUILT for George IV when he was Prince of Wales, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton is one of the most extravagant buildings of its age. Between the Prince first taking a lease of the site, in 1786, and the Pavilionõs completion in 1823, it was extended, remodelled and redecorated to serve his demand for dazzling display and luxurious comfort.
At its heart is the Saloon. Although the only major interior to retain its 1780s form, it was redecorated several times before being given its final incarnation by the artist-designer Robert Jones. As part of a major restoration begun in 2011, and due to be completed in 2017, the Saloon is being restored as faithfully as possible to its appearance in 1823, as recorded in a watercolour by A. C. Pugin commissioned for John Nashõs Views of the Royal Pavilion, published in 1826 ( Fig 1).
However, the project faced a major difficulty. The Saloon owed much of its splendour to the Ôgeranium and Gold Colour Silkõ used by Jones for wall hangings and upholstery, but it had vanished without trace, recorded only in a description in an 1828 inventory and, in hazy detail, in Puginõs watercolour. All evidence of the silk may have been removed in 1847Ð8, when the Saloon was stripped of its contents prior to Queen Victoriaõs sale of the Pavilion to the town of Brighton in 1850, when many of the furnishings and fittings were taken to Buckingham Palace. After a hunt through the Royal Collection and various textile archives produced no leads, the quest for the silk turned into serious detective work.
The fabric had been used in the Saloon to line six wall panels, make up three sets of curtains and full draperies and cover all the upholstered seat furnitureñ17 chairs with stuffed seats and backs, two side ottomans Ôto fit the sweepõ of the oval room and a central circular ottoman, 6ft in diameter. After all efforts to find a sample had failed, thoughts began to turn towards basing the design on another silk commissioned for George IV, a gold-coloured and Ôponceau [poppy] ground figured tissueõ, of which an unused length survives. However, although similar in its vertical pattern framed by a leaf border, it didnõt match the description of the original, a Ôrich crimson ground satin, yellow bird flower and scroll patternõ, nor its colours, as Ôpoppyõ is not Ôgeraniumõ.
The silk was introduced into the Saloon in more than one phase. An aquatint of 1823 shows the wall panels hung with crimson fluted silk and chairs with plain crimson covers made up by Messrs Bailey and Sanders, the prominent London firm of cabinetmakers and upholsterers. Its bill of January 5, 1823, confirms that, at that stage, only the window curtains were of Ôhis Majestyõs Geranium and Gold Colour Silké decorated & fringed to Mr Jonesõ designõ, leaving the wall panels and upholstered furniture to be installed in the course of the year.
Jones is an elusive figure, but his genius as a designer and complete control of the Saloonõs decoration are abundantly clear. Itõs not known whether he always intended to have all the roomõs textiles matching, but there can be no doubt that heñand the Kingñspared no expense in the pursuit of a vision dominated by pattern and colour. The fabric itself was probably supplied by D. & P. Cooper of 2, Waterloo Place, Pall Mall, Ôsilk mercer to His Majestyõ. ÔAN Abstract of Estimatesõ for completing the fitting up of the Saloon records that on June 24, 1823, the company
The clue that finally led to His Majesty’s silk was a chance conversation
was paid £402, enough to cover all or a major part of the cost.
The clue that finally led to ‘His Majesty’s Geranium and Gold Colour Silk’ was a chance conversation with Richard Humphries of Humphries Weaving Ltd of Sudbury, Suffolk, a specialist weaver in reproducing historic silks. In 1966, while working for the silk weavers Warner & Sons in Braintree, Essex, he had been responsible for photographing some of the firm’s archive of designs. When he was shown a rough sketch of the Saloon’s silk based on Pugin’s watercolour, prepared by Gordon Grant, formerly Senior Conservation Officer at the Royal Pavilion, Mr Humphries recognised that it bore a remarkable resemblance to a silk recorded in one of the blackand-white negatives he had kept after Warner’s ceased production in 1971 ( Fig 2).
A full-scale line drawing of this grainy image was immediately commissioned, a lengthy task undertaken by Humphries Weaving’s designer Natalie Jones, who then spent a further 50 hours producing a CAD design that could be used as the basis for reweaving the silk. This still left a major unknown element: the silk’s colour.
Right on cue, another extraordinary discovery was made when a coloured version of the design was spotted in a recently published book, Selling Silks: A Merchant’s Sample Book 1764, by Lesley Ellis Miller, Senior Curator of Textiles at the V& A. This sample book has its own remarkable story: it was impounded in 1764 by British Customs to prevent French agents illegally selling the many silk designs it contained. Among the samples were two furnishing fabrics of early-19th-century design that had been bound into the book at a later date ( Fig 3). One of these was none other than a section of the design in its complete width of 21in, showing one of the pattern’s two large motifs.
This find was fundamental to the search and not only for the colour. It provided essential information about the structure of the weave (it was a tissue weave and not, as had been assumed, the simpler damask weave) and the dimensions and layout of the pattern. It had been known from the watercolour that the motifs were staggered, but the complex small rosette repeat with the offset leaf border had not been noticeable.
Taking into account that the painting was not to scale, this pattern layout created a more balanced fit within the wall panel. Could this piece have been an offcut from the original fabric used in the Saloon? It was a question seriously considered at first.
More time was spent redrawing the design, particularly the rosettes, to ensure they ran in a perfect diagonal ( Fig 4) and a decision was made to match the sample’s bold mix of pinkish crimson (presumably ‘geranium’) and acid yellow, although both are different from the more sedate crimson and yellow fabrics made for George IV that survive in the Royal Collection. However, the yellow remained a niggling concern. The tone didn’t match the one textile object that had survived from the Saloon, a pair of yellow tassels that once formed part of the window drapery. The colour could also not be described as ‘gold’.
While pondering this conundrum, yet another sample remarkably came to light, prompting a whole new line of enquiry and adding another significant layer to the story. When the Royal Collection Trust offered to lend some chairs originally from the Saloon, it was discovered that a piece of silk fabric of the same design had been preserved in the Windsor upholstery workshop, framed on the wall ( Fig 5). This fragment had been removed from a set of bergère chairs in 1976, at the time of The Queen’s Silver Jubilee, when they were re-covered for use in the Royal Closet at Buckingham Palace. Made in about 1812 for the Prince Regent’s London home, Carlton House, the
chairs are attributed to Morel and Hughes, a London firm that he patronised.
Most fortunately, this fragment showed the other of the pattern’s two main decorative motifs. Comparison of the pieces from the Royal Closet and Sample Book produced some interesting results. Both had not only the same dimensions, pattern layout and similar crimson ground, but also, even more intriguingly, the same narrow buff selvedge (edge) woven with a single black organzine thread and the same small quirk in the weave of the rosettes. This indicated that the two pieces must have been woven by the same weaver, although not necessarily at the same time. The only difference between the two samples was that the yellow in the Royal Closet’s example was more golden in colour and a much closer match to the tassel. Could this fragment have come from the original fabric instead?
Framed with it was a label of the prestigious French weavers Grand Frères et Cie and a typed note suggesting that the silk was woven by them in 1911 and may have been copied in England by Sir Frank Warner in 1916—which might perhaps explain how a sample came to be in Warner’s archive. This note is not entirely correct, as Grand Frères et Cie was taken over by Tassinari et Chatel in 1870. However, it had long been assumed that the design was French, although where it was woven was open to debate. Designs were copied and George IV was purported to be very keen on using English manufacturing skills. There was also a government ban on importing foreign silks from 1765 to 1826, although the ruling was often flouted.
A call to the archivist at Tassinari et Chatel, Carole Damour, confirmed that there is no record of Grand Frères et Cie supplying this design to England in 1823 (or 1911), although the firm’s order books are incomplete. However, she recognised the pattern and could supply not only a reference number (1764), but also a complete fabric repeat (with crimson ground), a sketch with a description (on a yellow ground, Fig 6), and an order for the yellow-ground version dated May 14, 1816, from Bodin Frères for ‘SA Madame La Princess Smolensko’—ekaterina Kutuziva, widow of Marshal Kutuzov, who defeated Napoleon in Russia in 1812. In gratitude to her husband, Tsar Alexander I paid her expenses and she received a good pension for life; the sketch and description in the archive refer to ‘the Emperor of Russia’. No fragments are known to have survived from this order.
The Grand Frères et Cie label also caused a stir. An identical one is stamped on another fabric in the French archive dated 1809. It’s not known for how long this label was used, but later ones were of a different style. The archive sample had a different selvedge from the two fragments in the UK and lacked the same quirk in the weave, so was probably not by the same weaver.
The bergère chairs at Buckingham Palace had probably been re-covered by the London firm White, Allom & Company, which had furnished a number of the palace’s rooms in 1911. Could it have used some silk left over from the furnishing of the Saloon? The 1828 inventory noted, under ‘Silk in Stores’, ‘5 yards geranium and gold colour satin and a yard and ¾ same Saloon; 13 yards same borders cut off’. It is recorded that this silk was sent to Kensington Palace on June 6, 1848, but its whereabouts thereafter are unknown. The surviving fragment has had its border cut off, further evidence of a link to the material recorded in the inventory.
This tantalising story shows how research is rarely straightforward and a number of questions remain unanswered. However, it seems very likely that the fragment in the Royal Closet has the same design and colours as ‘ His Majesty’s Geranium and Gold Colour Silk’ and so it has been adopted as the basis for the rewoven silk used in the current restoration of the Saloon. When revealed to the public in the autumn of next year, it will make a spectacular impact.
Fig 1: The Saloon at Brighton Pavilion, a watercolour painted by A. C. Pugin in about 1823– 4. Until the recent discoveries recorded in this article, this was the sole visual evidence for the silk used for the curtains, wall hangings and upholstery
Fig 2 above: The first detailed evidence of the silk to be tracked down was this black-and-white negative taken in 1966 in the archive of Warner’s of Braintree. Fig 3 above right: A sample of silk showing half the pattern’s repeat, inserted in a merchant’s sample book of 1764 in the V& A
Fig 4: A digital image made by Humphries Weaving on the basis of Figs 2 and 3, showing the silk’s full 47½in repeat and 21in width
Fig 5: This fragment of fabric found on a bergère in the Royal Closet in Buckingham Palace may have come from silk ordered for the Saloon, but not used
Fig 6: A contemporary sketch of the same pattern, woven on a yellow ground for the ‘The Emperor of Russia’ by the French firm Grand Frères et Cie, 1816