This volume lives up to the usual high-quality standards of the publisher Phaidon with its sumptuous colour reproductions and its generous proportions. There are as many (if not more) pages of illustrations as of text.
The book was purchased following a visit to the Brighton Pavilion. Steven Parissien was already known to this reviewer as the author of a similar book on `Adam Style', for which I have also written a review. Parissien is also known in both academia and popular history circles as an expert on George IV. Indeed, he was the historical adviser on Lucy Worsley's recent series for the BBC. That series focussed the Regency purely in its historical definition, namely 1811-1820, but Parissien's book on Regency style must perforce expand that decade to encapsulate the period 1780-1840. It thus forms a natural follow-on to a consideration of Adam's style, to which it was both an antithesis and - when taking the brief puritanical neo-classicist reaction into account - a synthesis.
Despite purchasing it in the Brighton Pavilion shop, its author says his book "does not include an analysis of the great houses of the great architects of Regency Britain"; instead, it "concentrates principally on the average house." This again accords with the Adam book, where the emphasis was very heavily towards the style rather than the work of the man or men who inspired it. But this sits uneasily with Parissien's later remark that, "More than at any other time in Britain's history, politics and particularly personalities affected design to a considerable extent."
The author chooses, alas, to steer clear of this aspect, although he does include brief biographical sketches of leading Regency designers - from Rudolph Ackermann to Sir Jeffry Wyatville - in his appendix. This choice to concentrate on the style itself without much of the supporting historical, social, economic, and political context is manifested in the chapter titles: they are `The Architectural Shell'; `Windows & Doors'; `Joinery & Plasterwork'; `Services' (lighting, heating, plumbing, cooking); `Colours & Coverings'; `Furniture'; and `Gardens'. One must look elsewhere for the societal circumstances that gave rise to the style. I should also point out that there is very little at all on Regency art, such as painting or ceramics, but Parissien does devote his last chapter to the garden, for he argues that by the 1820s "it was virtually regarded as an organic extension of the drawing room."
Parissien's rough-and-ready definition of what constitutes Regency style alludes to "the influence of the Prince of Wales, of political developments, of industrial advances, and of the antique", all of which "served to produce what was undoubtedly a very eclectic style, yet at the same time one that was quintessentially, self-consciously British, in a way no architectural or decorative style had ever been before." The key word here is `eclectic', because for this (arguably) first self-conscious British style to have arisen and declined over sixty years means that Parissien can refer to Henry Holland's reaction to Adam style in the same sentence as referring to the same Holland's debt to the heavier Directoire and Empire styles of contemporary France: can they all be Regency? Furthermore, in his chapter on furniture, Parissien can point to the proliferation of all manner of styles - Chinese, Egyptian, French, Gothic, Greek, Hindu, Turkish - having a place within the overall Regency umbrella.
I learned much from this book, for example that French windows were a Regency feature and were not particularly French. I learned that the modern concept of lounging arose during this period. (It was, apparently, not the done thing in the eighteenth century.) We are also told that, "In 1807 Thomas Hope introduced the term `Interior Decoration' to the English language". (But to then go on and claim that the guides of the resulting interior decorators "initiated the concept of the instantly recognisable, comprehensive `look' to be imposed on all items in the interior" is perhaps to ignore the Palladianism and Adam style of the previous century.) Parissien quotes extensively from these new guides and pattern-books and provides illustrations from their pages.
The literary world is also employed to illustrate contemporary reactions to the style. Parissien opens each chapter mischievously with a suitable contemporary literary quote - Charles Lamb, Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, Sydney Smith, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Peacock. But this reviewer felt that the ending of each chapter might have benefitted with a useful summing up of all that had gone before. There are other criticisms: for example, Sue Berry has demonstrated in her book `Georgian Brighton' that the town was so much more that what Parissien describes as a "little-regarded Sussex fishing village" when the Prince Regent first visited it in 1783
And as with his Adam book, Parissien writes with a passive eye towards the modern restorer. Where this is the case, "What this book does preach is the virtue of sensitivity, and the benefits to be reaped from avoiding the precious pretentiousness that is such a feature of many of today's `period' interiors." For example, an illustration on page 53 shows "how not to paint a stuccoed terrace". He judiciously includes a list of contacts and sources for information in both Britain and the United States at the end of his book. A list of further reading and an index bring up the rear.