Brighton aquarium by Charles Knight, 1924
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The Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery and Museums, Brighton & Hove

When an old building is to be replaced by something new there are many differing ideas in the local and national press as to what should take its place. Thus it was with the Aquarium on Brighton’s seafront. Built in 1871 to the designs of Eugenius Birch (who also designed the West Pier), it was always popular with the public as a concert venue as well as housing many strange sea-creatures. Financial difficulties forced the sale of the Aquarium to Brighton Council in 1901. During the 1st World War the building was in military occupation and subsequently fell into disrepair; by 1924 it was thought the building should be modernised and Captain Bertie MacLaren, Superintendent of Brighton Parks Department, offered a complete design for a building and gardens.

MacLaren said the Aquarium site was ‘the town’s most important entrance to the sea’, lamenting the then existing building as an ‘accumulation of mean structures, nothing beautiful or attractive’. He asked local artist, Charles Knight to realise his scheme which, although simple in form was theatrical in realisation, the whole dominated by a raised platform commanding uninterrupted views. The concert hall was to have a waggon shaped roof of glass and the section above ground level a frontage of sliding glass doors, which could be opened in the summer. All around this frontage would be a canopied walk where open-air performances of the orchestra could be heard in full view of the sea. He imagined couples at night, in true John Travolta fashion, dancing on ‘a prism glass floor electrically illuminated underneath’. The surrounding slopes laid out as a rock garden – ‘in natural stratification …one blaze of colour all through the season.'

The local press were not in favour of an ornamental garden, commenting that its location was not suitable being exposed to salty spray and winds off the sea. The rock garden was rejected, along with MacLaren’s design for the building on the grounds that it had not taken into account the surrounding architecture and the idea was too grand and costly for the site. MacLaren was not defeated however; the design of the building was later taken over by Harry Tillstone, the Borough Surveyor and his staff, with MacLaren in the reduced role of advising on the layout of the grounds alone. However, the building that was eventually opened by the Duke of Kent on 12 June 1929 was designed by the Borough Engineer, David Edwards.
This remained until its recent redevelopment.

Demolition of the eastern end of the old aquarium started in 1927. With his usual proclivity for rescuing and recycling decorative fixtures and fittings from the town’s demolished buildings, MacLaren removed the four figures on ‘The Seasons’ which adorned the clock tower. They were later moved to Preston Park rose garden; two mythical beasts were placed by the pool in front of the Rotunda in Preston Park and bronze masks adorn various buildings around the park, although sadly many of these have now gone. Charles Knight’s watercolours for MacLaren’s scheme were exhibited at the International Exhibition for Garden Design and Conference Planning at the Royal Horticultural Society in 1928; and the one shown here is in the collection of Brighton and Hove Museum.

James Gray’s photographs of the varying stages of the Aquarium may be viewed online here – Volume 4 of the Collection.

Lavender Jones

Brighton Herald.
Brighton Parks Department - an exploration of its early history and its formative Superintendent, Captain Bertie Hubbard MacLaren 1994; Virginia Hinze

Charles Knight's watercolour of the proposal