Painting of the Pavilion in Brighton with Indian Army Wounded
An interior of the exotically decorated Music Room in the Brighton Pavilion. The room has been converted into a hospital ward and is lined with metal-framed beds. All the wounded are Indian soldiers in turbans. Some sit by their beds in their overcoats looking out of the window to the right of the composition. Others lie in their beds beneath their blankets. There is a chandelier hanging in the centre of the painting and, beyond this, what appear to be Far-Eastern style works of art on the far wall.
At least three oil paintings exist showing Indian soldiers convalescing in Brighton Pavilion – the vast seaside pleasure palace built by the Prince Regent (later George IV) and used as a temporary hospital by the Indian Army from late 1914 through to the end of 1915.
Burleigh lived in nearby Hove and he completed this painting, now in the Imperial War Museum, in 1917 – two years after most of the Indians had departed from Brighton.
The notion of the Indian soldiers inhabiting this well-known palace produced a number of enthusiastic press accounts shortly after their arrival in late 1914/ early 1915. Reporters dwelled on the oriental appearance of the Pavilion – with its ‘exquisite carved verandah’ and gave rather verbose descriptions of Indian patients - ‘white-turbanned, dark-skinned warriors who lay in their little snowy beds’.
The artists commissioned to paint the scene seem to have been similarly excited by the notion of the loyal Indian soldier being treated in a ‘royal palace’. This packaging and promotion was part of a wider Imperial project which saw the Indian soldier lionised for his devotion to the ‘mother country’. The Indians were something of a cause célèbre in Britain at this time: the Indian Soldiers Fund, supported by a large number of aristocrats and wealthy individuals, was at pains to provide the Indians with all they needed – sweets, socks, balaclavas, writing paper and so on.
The people of Brighton - long used to visitors of all kinds - were notably warm-hearted in their welcome to the Indians. With the Pavilion designated for the Indians’ use, the local townspeople ‘filled the grand halls with palms and chrysanthemums’ - only to have them removed by the Indian Army officials on space grounds. We know from the dozens of letters written home by the Indian soldiers, preserved at the British Library, just how warmly the people of Brighton treated them. One Indian wrote: 'We get a great deal of respect here. The children & ladies will not let us walk unmolested. They get hold of our hands & want to kiss us, & in other ways to make much of us'.
This fraternisation posed too great a threat for the authorities, however, and they took the decision to lock the Indians into the hospital – a curtailment of their freedom which the Indians bitterly resented.
The Indian soldiers were encouraged to think that their use of the Pavilion was a magnanimous act by the King. One sepoy wrote: 'Our hospital is in the place where the Kings used to have this Throne. Every man is washed once in hot water. The Kings has given a strict order that no trouble is to be given to any black man in hospital. Men in hospital are tended like flowers, and the King and Queen sometimes come to visit them'.
The Pavilion had in fact been little used by the royals for decades and was even described as ‘an object of derision’ in one account of Brighton – which was seen as having ‘gone downhill’ socially, the railways having opened it up to working-class day-trippers from London.
The soldiers depicted here had their own concerns: most were badly wounded and had lost comrades in the appalling slaughter near Ypres just weeks before. They were bemused by the attention they attracted but the constant stream of reporters and VIP visitors became too much at times. Moreover, for the soldiers there was much to ruminate on. Their letters home show how the war – initially so enthusiastically embraced - had turned out to be a terrifying ordeal about which many now had grave doubts.