Place and Identity Expressed in Brighton Aquatints

John Piper – ‘The Royal Pavilion’, plate II, circa 1939

John Piper’s ‘Brighton Aquatints’ was published in late November 1939 just after the outbreak of the Second World War by Gerald Duckworth Ltd. Two-hundred and fifty sets were printed from the original steel-faced copper plates and of these fifty-five sets were hand coloured.

John Piper’s ‘Brighton Aquatints’ rarely comes to auction and is now valued in the thousands. But The Mainstone Press’ 2019 edition, with its excellent introduction and essay by Alan Powers, provides a beautiful and accessible way to enjoy the images and text of the rare original volumes.

Piper revived the early 19th century print making medium of aquatint. At first glance the images with their facing text could appear to record the passing of an age. But the book has a textural, stylized quality which gives expression to deeply held emotions connected with place. It shows Piper’s awareness and interest in modernism and abstraction – a romantic modernism.

The book consist of twelve aquatints of Brighton. The illustrations were printed by the two Alexander brothers who had a basement workshop in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, London. The watermarks which appear in the paper are irregularly placed and are styled as a hand raised in blessing, a head, said to be that of Christ, and the date 1399.

The process of creating an aquatint involves exposing a plate, usually of copper or zinc, to acid through an applied layer of granulated, melted resin. The acid incises the plate between the granules creating areas of evenly pitted surface. This can be varied by applying additional resin, scraping and burnishing. Different strengths of acids are also employed. When the grains are removed and the plate is printed it results in variations of tone. The effect often resembles watercolours and wash drawings, hence the name Aquatint.

As you know I visited the Royal Pavilion Brighton only a few weeks ago. The scene was reminiscent of Piper’s view of the ‘The Royal Pavilion’ which remains remarkably unchanged from his 1939 aquatint. In his notes Piper describes the building’s extravagant beauty and the great affection in which it is held.

John Piper – ‘Regency Square from the West Pier’, plate III, circa 1939

In ‘Regency Square from the West Pier’ we are reminded of a view now lost to us. John Piper describes how the pier appears like a ‘dazzling white meringue, brittle and sweet…florid and grand as anywhere.’ Regency Square is laid out on a gentle slope in the view beyond.

In some ways John Piper’s Brighton Aquatints is representative of a collective English re-thinking of the role of locality and place in relation to our identity. In the 1930s, as today, there were many who claimed that these things did not matter. But this book speaks persuasively of the importance and value of place to English identity. As we seek to answer the housing needs of our nation I hope that imaginative architecture, and a celebration of the regional and vernacular will speak to our identity as a nation and create homes where our families can flourish.

Buoyant Auctions reflected in a Shift in Values

The prices for art, antiques and collectors’ items have been stronger post-lockdown than they were before. There is a hopefulness in people’s desire to acquire beautiful objects for their homes or to feed a passion for collecting. There has been a delight in once again being able to gather this community of people to the salerooms for viewings and auctions by appointment, as well as online. And they have been delighted to come together observing social distancing, hygiene and masks to keep one another safe.

This has been made possible at Toovey’s by spreading our specialist sales across the month ensuring safe numbers. Large numbers of new clients have signed up for auction updates and catalogues which are constantly changing at

I can’t tell you what is behind this increase in demand. Perhaps the painting, watch or piece of jewellery we have always wanted is more tempting than the 0% interest rates on our savings. Or is it the experience of spending longer in our homes whether homeworking or isolating which have highlighted the austerity of minimalism and a need for richer, eclectic interiors to engage our imaginations and delight the eye. Maybe it’s the experience of separation from loved ones which is inspiring us to prepare gathering homes in the comfortable English country house taste as our Grandparents did for when we can safely be together once again. Is it our experience of bluer skies, less pollution, a deeper appreciation of nature and engagement with the world which is inspiring us to acquire beautiful, sustainable antique furniture made out of precious timbers, which has already served successive generations, as an expression of better stewardship of our planet? Might it also be that these objects speak of our shared story, our common history which binds us together as a nation?

I suspect that it is a combination of all these things. For now at least there seems to be a shift in our priorities and a desire to live differently – perhaps we were all gong a bit fast before Covid.

One of the things that I have observed both at the salerooms and whilst visiting people has been a common view that meeting with others is vital to our wellbeing and whilst Zoom and Facetime have been a blessing, they are no substitute for real life human encounters.

Communities are at the heart of our nation. I hope that the ‘R’ number willing I will be able to continue to meet and gather you as we begin our Winter season of specialist sales.

Objects of Unparalleled Magnificence at the Royal Pavilion

The Saloon © The Royal Pavilion, Brighton/Jim Holden, 2020

This week we are returning to the Royal Pavilion, Brighton where the exhibition ‘A Prince’s Treasure’ is currently on show. It provides a once in a lifetime opportunity to see furniture and works of art, generously loaned by Her Majesty The Queen, displayed as George IV intended in the Pavilion.

We are once again in the company of David Beevers, Keeper of the Royal Pavilion. In The Saloon, the grandest Royal room in the Pavilion, David remarks “Light, the sun and sunflowers are the dominate motifs.”

George IV was self-indulgent, hedonistic, extravagant and self-pitying. He married Mrs Fitzherbert privately and illegally without his father George III’s permission and did not behave well towards Queen Caroline. But he was a charismatic personality.

After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 George felt that his regal magnificence was the embodiment of Britain’s greatness. In 1811 George had boasted that his court would eclipse that of the French Emperor Napoleon I. Throughout his life George was a passionate patron of the arts, and a connoisseur and collector of the furniture, paintings and works of art of France from the period of Louis XIV at Versailles to Napoleon Bonaparte.

David says ‘The Saloon represents the Pavilion style at its confident best…there is a Stateliness. It’s decorated in the royal colours of crimson, silver and gold – this regal space must have provided a remarkable backdrop to the ceremony and drama of George’s reign.”

The Yellow Drawing Room Buckingham Palace, Royal Collection Trust © HM Queen Elizabeth II, 2019.

David draws my attention to the Kylin clock flanked by the Chinese porcelain vases with English gilt-bronze mounts. They were designed to stand together upon the remarkable chimneypiece which has been photographically superimposed to great effect, the original remains in the East Wing of Buckingham Palace. The clock has a later movement by B.L. Vuillamy which is mounted in a 17th century Chinese porcelain bowl above a pair of 18th century Chinese mythical creatures sometimes described as Kylin. David explains that the clock was acquired in France but the gilt-bronze fruit, flower and sunflower motifs were supplied by the bronze manufacturer Samuel Parker to a design by Robert Jones. Robert Jones’ design can also be seen in the gilt-bronze candle sockets which surmount the pair of Chinese export vases.

David describes the pieces from the Royal Collection as “Objects of unparalleled magnificence”.

David Beevers and the Royal Pavilion team, The Royal Collection Trust and the Government Indemnity Office must all be congratulated on the success of this remarkable venture.

George’s collection in the context of The Royal Pavilion, Brighton, provides a unique insight into the royal and aristocratic tastes of the early 19th century. The Chinese porcelain and clocks with their gilt-bronze mounts bring together George’s fascination with the art of 18th/early 19th century France and the exotic creations of the east.

You can book tickets for ‘A Princes’ Treasure’ by visiting and you must treat yourself to the stunning new Guide to The Royal Pavilion – it is beautifully written and produced.

Once in a Lifetime Opportunity at Royal Pavilion Brighton

Royal Pavilion Banqueting Room with fender, mantel clock and serving tables designed by Robert Jones, Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020.

In the first of a series of articles I am exploring a significant and generous loan of objects by Her Majesty The Queen to the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. These important objects will be on display at the Royal Pavilion until the autumn of 2021.

Amongst these are some of the most splendid pieces commissioned by George IV for the Royal Pavilion. The exhibition ‘A Prince’s Treasure’ provides a once in a lifetime opportunity to see this collection in the context of its original setting as George IV would have intended.

This week I am in the company of David Beevers, Keeper of the Royal Pavilion, who has overseen this remarkable collaboration between the Royal Collection Trust and the Royal Pavilion. The loan comprises of more than 120 objects which are on display at the Royal Pavilion for the first time since their removal to London in 1847/48. David explains how Queen Victoria enjoyed her Uncle George IV’s extravagant taste at Brighton.

When Brighton and the building no longer suited Queen Victoria’s family needs it was decided that the Pavilion should be sold and it was assumed that the site would be redeveloped. The fixtures, including fireplaces and wall panels, and the decorative objects, wallpapers and furniture were removed to London where many of them were installed under Prince Albert’s direction in the newly built East Wing at Buckingham Palace.

With remarkable foresight and in an act of enlightened civic patronage the Pavilion was bought and saved for the town by the Brighton Town Commissioners and their Clerk, Lewis Slight.

In 1863 Queen Victoria generously returned a number of important murals and chandeliers. Since then Royal patronage has seen numerous objects returned to the Royal Pavilion, thanks to a series of gifts and loans. In 1955 Her Majesty The Queen returned more than 100 objects on long term loan.
As we enter the Banqueting Room I remark on how the decorative whole is so much more apparent and alive with the loans in place. David agrees saying “Everything speaks – it suddenly starts talking to each other.”

He explains how the designs of Robert Jones can be discerned in the details and overall decorative scheme. Many of the pieces are designed by Jones. As we stand before one of the fireplaces it becomes apparent that the dragon and serpent motifs decorating the steel, brass and gilt-bronze fenders and fire dogs are repeated elsewhere. The legs of the superb rosewood, mahogany and satinwood veneered serving tables, manufactured by Tatham, Bailey and Sanders are delicately carved with gilded dragons. In the overdoor panels, too, carved gilded serpents and dragons are framed beneath arched palmette friezes bringing together the Chinese and Indian styles.

Banqueting Room mantel clock by Vuillamy, Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

I ask David if he has a favourite piece and he shows me an extraordinary mantel clock saying “This clock reflects the Pavilion style at its confident best.” He describes how the clock was designed by Robert Jones and made by Vuillamy. The Chinese figures echo those painted on the walls. The gilt-bronze foliage was gilded by Fricker and Henderson and seems to allude to an eagle in flight.
Benjamin Lewis Vuillamy was horologist to the Royal family and his work rivalled the French manufacturers. With its enamelled figures and peacock surmount it speaks of George IV’s patronage of the very finest craftsmanship of his age.

‘A Prince’s Treasure’ is an extraordinary exhibition which brings to life the patronage of a Prince and King here in the very heart of Sussex and I am looking forward to revisiting. The generous, intelligent procession through the rooms and the other Covid precautions with ticketed, timed entry has been designed to keep the visitor safe. Visit to book your tickets. This is a must see exhibition!