How England’s Royal Showcase became an Inspiration for America’s Greatest Showman

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By Ken Zurski

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In the late 18th century, George, Prince of Wales, soon to serve as Prince Regent due to his father’s illness, was told by the royal physicians to take better care of his own health, specifically more baths, or “dips,” in the salt water properties of the sea.

The Prince choose the coastal village of Brighton, England, a once rundown fishing town that was turning into a seaside retreat for the wealthy.  Not only was Brighton close to London, but it’s warmer climate and proximity to the English Channel was perfect for those, like the Prince, who were ordered to take these so-called restorative “dips.”

Whether or not the Prince stuck to his doctors orders or not is not known. Regardless of his health, and befitting his reputation as a royal glutton, Brighton suited him just fine.  Soon he sought to build a grand palace in Brighton, under his orders and complete with a “glass domed roof, hand-painted Chinese wallpaper, a 62-horse stable, and a Great Kitchen.” Work began in earnest in 1787.

Although the Marine Palace soon to be transformed into the Royal Pavilion, was the brainchild of the Prince Regent (the future King George IV), the finished product, a mixture of many styles and influences, was the work of architect John Nash.

John Nash

Nash’s design suited the future King, but hardly anyone else.  “A masterpiece of bad taste” was one icy reception, while another described it as a “mad house.” Even Queen Victoria, wife of King William  IV, King George’s successor,  was unmoved calling it “odd” then demeaning its purpose. “Most of the rooms are low and I can see a morsel of the sea from one of my sitting windows,” she bemoaned, refusing to spend much time there.

Born in London in 1752, Nash earned a reputation for designing houses, castles really, for the rich. Eventually, his work caught the eye of the prince.  In 1806, Nash became his personal architect. The re-imagining of the Royal Pavilion, also named the Carlton House, was their partnership.

To make it even more unique, between 1815 and 1822, Nash added flourishing touches to the Pavilion that included an elaborate second wing and a special dome feature that made it’s outer appearance similar to India’s most famous architectural statement, The Taj Mahal.

The Royal Pavilion

The English shoreline never shone so brightly, but it was different, and not very British-like, especially for royalty, and the biting condemnations quickly followed.

But attitudes toward the Royal Pavilion would change.

In 1841, a rail line made it more accessible. Now more people could come and roam the grounds and enjoy the scenic location for themselves. To the British commoner, the Royal Pavilion was a work of art.

Unfortunately the man who endured the constant jabs about his work from his peers, never lived long enough to see it appreciated.  In 1835, shortly before the Pavilion became a popular tourist attraction, Nash died at the age of 83.

Nearly a decade after his death, Nash would be vindicated again when the Royal Pavilion was paid the ultimate compliment by an American entrepreneur and visionary who not only admired the uniqueness of the building, he sought to copy it too.

In 1848 a mansion went up in the scenic countryside of Connecticut that looked oddly out of place for its location. Not only was it very large, occupying 17 acres of land, but the building itself with its exotic Indian influenced architecture looked like something you might spot in far off Mumbai or New Dehli, not Fairfield, near Bridgport, the state’s largest city.

All this was the creation of one man who commissioned the building as a “permanent residence” for his family.

His name was Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as P.T. Barnum.

In admiration, Barnum patterned the design of his new home in the style of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

He named it the Iranistan.

The Iranistan


For more on the history of  P.T. Barnum’s Iranistan click here: