The exhibition Stephen Jones Hats at the Royal Pavilion, which is in partnership with the department store Harvey Nichols, opened in February 2019 showcasing over 170 examples of Stephen’s work as well as outfits from Stephen’s collaborators Dior, Giles Deacon and Thom Browne across 15 rooms of the former royal palace in Brighton. The exhibition, which runs until 9 June was co-curated by Jones and Brighton Museum’s Curator of Fashion, CfFC associate member Martin Pel.
Photos by Tessa Hallmann
Words by Martin Pel
As you might imagine, staging the show brought myriad issues as the Royal Pavilion is not a museum but an historic house filled with loans from the Royal Collection. One of the first issues to overcome was keeping fellow staff members on board; everyone was enthusiastic about the idea of the show but ‘interventions’ in the pavilion are not always met favourably. The interiors are as close to how the former owner, King George IV, would have remembered them with original decorative schemes, furniture and art objects all from the 1820s. When George built the pavilion and furnished its interiors he employed only the best craftsmen, architect (John Nash) and interior decorators. The addition of objects from the 21st century not only influences the way we interpret the original objects but has the potential of making the ‘new additions’ look inferior, if they do not meet the standards set by George’s original scheme. I am pleased to say that as a master craftsman himself Stephen’s work perfectly complemented the interiors and brought new life to the rooms in which they are placed, a sentiment echoed by David Beevers, the keeper of the Royal Pavilion and its collections.
Objects are not allowed to touch any royal loan and in the Banqueting Room in which we imagined a dinner party thrown by Stephen with ‘guests’ seated around the table, stands were constructed by the mount maker Mike Penwolf so the guests hats hovered over chair as though in situ. The major issue with this display (and any other) is one of conservation. The banqueting table is laid with an almost priceless dinner service by Cole Port and the hovering hats had to be properly secured to their stands so there was no possibility that one moved and damaged any other object. Hugely heavy base plates were created with the stands screwed in place from which they could not move.
Each of the 170 hats not only had a bespoke stand by Mike Penwolf but Zenzie Tinker, the textile conservator, handmade internal mounts so each hat sat at the correct angle as though on the wearer’s head. The stands and internal mounts not only took considerable time to create but considerable cost, at over £40,000! The stands were made with longevity in mind as exhibitions can be heavy on resources so each stand can be disassembled and used for future shows in the pavilion or museum.
The Royal Pavilion is a living building in that events are held in many of the rooms over the year. For the Music Room which displays four Dior outfits wearing Stephen’s hats and two 3-D printed busts – one of Stephen and one of King George also wearing hats – the positioning of the objects was subject to events which regularly take place there. The only place where they would not intrude on events was either side of the fireplace. The Great Kitchen, which has nearly 50 of Stephen’s hats, is also used regularly for events and the only way to facilitate both the show and the events is for me to move the hats out of the way whilst the event takes place and replace them afterwards – a pain but the only solution.
The show was held in late winter and spring as these are our least busy periods. The show was a vehicle to bring in new visitors as well as new demographics (those interested in fashion) which it succeeded in doing, but it was also scheduled then to avoid bottle necks. Labels were kept to the barest minimum so visitors would not stop and read and clogg up the narrow walkways. We are all familiar with the frustration of visiting busy shows and not seeing anything so again the scheduling gave greater visitor satisfaction.
These are perhaps some of the most salient issues in staging the show and there were plenty of other problems to overcome (storage of boxes while the show is on, the lack of additional lighting, last minute mannequin sourcing) the show succeeded in its aims in bringing new audiences by re-interpreting the stories of the Royal Pavilion.
Read more about the exhibition
Royal Pavilion, 4/5 Pavilion Buildings, Brighton BN1 1EE
Until 9 June 2019
Find out about CfFC’s collaborations with Brighton Museum