Brighton’s Marlborough House: an architectural gem ignored by its city

Brighton's marlborough house: an architectural gem ignored by its city
Samuel Hieronymus Grimm’s 1787 depiction of Marlborough House, Brighton. Illustration: courtesy of the British Library

As beauty contests go, the battle between global heritage sites is fickle and fierce. For every Frick House in Manhattan, say, or Carss Cottage Museum in Sydney, there are faded former homes languishing unloved in forgotten corners of our cities. Too often the fate of important buildings is left to the vagaries of a rich person’s whim and the capricious decisions of local authorities.

Compare the indulgent treatment of the Royal Pavilion Estate in Brighton with the cruel attitude toward its neighbour Marlborough House on the Old Steine. In 1783, the Prince of Wales visited Brighton and stayed at Grove House – as Marlborough House was then known. Three years later, his agent in the town arranged a three-year lease on a lodging house. This would become, in fits and starts, the Royal Pavilion. Queen Victoria loathed the place and sold it to the local authority in 1850. She took most of the fixtures and fittings with her, but today thousands of people flock to its ersatz corridors in the belief that they are getting the genuine Regency article.

Marlborough House, a Grade I-listed house, was built more than 20 years before the prince came to town. It was unlucky with its owners. It was sold to the third Duke of Marlborough, then sold once more in 1786 to William Hamilton MP.

It was Hamilton who commissioned the Regency architectural go-to-guy Robert Adam to remodel the house in a style subsequently praised by the Pevsner Architectural Guide to Brighton and Hove as “a Palladian great house in miniature”. Hamilton died in 1796 and, in 1870, yet another owner, John Beal, leased the house to the Brighton School Board, which eventually bought it in 1891. It served as education offices until 1974 and then as a tourist information centre before being closed in the mid-1990s. The council sold the freehold of the property in 1999 to a businessman called Tony Antoniades for around £500,000. []

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