Weaving firm brings alive historic silks fit for a prince

The Saloon room at the Brighton Pavilion after the completion of the restoration project Picture: J

The Saloon room at the Brighton Pavilion after the completion of the restoration project Picture: Jim Holden - Credit: Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove / Jim Holden

Work by Sudbury’s Humphries Weaving adorns Saloon room in Brighton’s Royal Pavilion

The world-famous Brighton Pavilion re-opened its Saloon room last autumn after an extensive restoration, which saw Suffolk firm Humphries Weaving bring dazzling royal silk hangings alive again after 180 years. Marketing manager Natalie Jones explains the creative process and detective work that went into this high-profile project.

What was the project?

Designed by Robert Jones and built for George IV when he was Prince of Wales, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton is one of the most extravagant buildings of the Georgian age and today stands as the city’s most famous landmark.

In 2002, under the direction of David Beevers, Keeper of the Royal Pavilion, conservation and restoration work started on the Pavilion’s Saloon in earnest with the aim of restoring the room to its 1823 glory – the date the magnificent building was originally completed. This included an ambition to bring in the finest silk for wall panels, drapery and furniture upholstery.

Natalie Jones at Humphries Weaving

Natalie Jones at Humphries Weaving - Credit: Archant

READ MORE: Sir John Harvey-Jones revisited: what are the lessons learnt 30 years after the Troubleshooter came to Suffolk?

When was it finished?

The project as a whole took 16 years to complete and was opened to the public in September 2018, with works costing in the region of £390,000.

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What was involved in finding the right design?

Humphries Weaving was approached about the project in the initial stages but it really came to life for us in late 2014 when the conservation works were nearing completion.

Textile historian and interiors consultant, Annabel Westman, who had been researching the fabric and the archives relating to the Saloon, provided Richard Humphries with a description from the room inventory, which stated the hangings were of ‘His Majesty’s Geranium and Gold colour silk’ and noted that the design included ‘yellow bird flower and scroll pattern’.

Richard dove into our archive and produced a black and white photographic image of a design that fitted the description perfectly. From this small 6×4 image, I began redrawing the design in pencil to the full scale of 21 inches wide and 50 inches in length.

This design was presented to the Royal Pavilion and the whole team were thrilled to see it, after they had been imagining the pattern for so many years. At this stage we were working in black and white and the main clue to the colour (alongside the description of ‘Geranium and Gold’) were two watercolours, one by John Nash and a further in the Royal Collection.

In developing the colour we had to again delve into our archive and we referenced previous restorations we had undertaken for the George IV state apartments at Windsor Castle. We also explored other geranium, poppy and crimson colour descriptions in order to make recommendations.

Natalie Jones drawing the silk pattern design

Natalie Jones drawing the silk pattern design - Credit: Archant

Where did your research take you?

Then came the first in a series of discoveries, which gave us a major breakthrough in our research.

On a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), we were looking through the book shop when my colleague Jenny Dyer fell upon a page that she recognised straight away. ‘Selling Silks: A Merchant’s Sample Book’ was a photographic record of a French sample book once in the possession of Warner & Sons, Braintree, with the original now retained in the Victoria & Albert museum archive.

We arranged to view the original with Annabel Westman and David Beevers and this was the first time that we were all able to see the Saloon pattern in woven colour.

There were some questions over the strength of the gold colour in the sample, as there was a decorative tassel surviving from the original Saloon scheme that differed.

Annabel Westman had also been in contact with the Royal Collection and on sharing the design we had created they immediately recognised it, as they had a piece preserved in a frame hanging on the studio wall!

Brighton Pavilion silk weaving design and new trimmings

Brighton Pavilion silk weaving design and new trimmings - Credit: Archant

The tone of gold in this sample was much more in keeping with the original tassel and so our ‘Geranium and Gold’ colour was established and custom dyed on site in Sudbury for the new weaving.

After studying both the V&A and Royal Collection samples in fine detail, back at our studio in Sudbury we carried out a further 50 hours of CAD work to get the design ready to weave, with myself and Jenny carefully plotting the trellis of rosettes that form part of the pattern and quarter drop repeat.

What were the particular challenges?

As with many of our projects we started our research with very limited evidence, in this case a simple inventory description of the fabric and a watercolour of the room. That’s why it is so important for us to carefully document and archive all of our historic restorations, colours and designs as they are such a valuable resource for informing future projects.

Historic restorations can take a long time to come to fruition and for many of the team at the Brighton Pavilion, the Saloon restoration was the culmination of their life’s work and research. With this comes a lot of pressure to get things right.

Image of the 'Selling Silks' book found at the V&A

Image of the 'Selling Silks' book found at the V&A - Credit: Archant

For us it was quite unusual to discover so much evidence after we had started the project. Our presentation of what we believed to be the design at the start unlocked several discoveries that ultimately proved us to be correct. There were refinements to both the design and the colour but I was very pleased that our initial recommendations had been so accurate.

What was the finished result?

Highlights of the restoration include the silver and ‘pearl white’ wall decoration using platinum leaf – in total 17,000 motifs were applied by hand - as well as a newly commissioned reproduction circular carpet made by Axminster Carpets with a lavish design of dragons, sun rays and lotus leaves.

The striking Geranium and Gold silk woven by Humphries Weaving, Sudbury has been used for wall panels, magnificent drapery and furniture.

How do you feel when you visit the Pavilion?

I was lucky enough to have access to the completed Saloon just before it was furnished, in order to undertake some filming with Eye Film of Norwich. Even then the restoration was breath taking. Jenny and I returned a few days later for the official opening and press launch and the impact of the dressed room was even more spectacular.

To see the culmination of such an extensive and in-depth restoration involving multiple advisors, trades and crafts working at the very top of their field makes us extremely proud.