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Georgians Revealed: Life,Style and the Making of Modern Britain

Georgians Revealed: Life,Style and the Making of Modern Britain

The British Library is currently holding what appears to be a fascinating exhibition on certain aspects of life in England under the reigns of the four Georges, that is from 1714 with accession of George I, to the death of George IV in 1830. Georgians Revealed is, no doubt, going to be the first of many exhibitions to be held in the forthcoming months to celebrate the 300th anniversary of George I ascending to the throne. The main premise of this exhibition is that much of our life today is directly influenced by the cultural developments that first occurred in the Georgian era and that direct comparisons between the two societies can made. According to the BL’s press release the exhibition provides

a fascinating insight into life in 18th and 19th century Britain and displaying never before seen artefacts that shed light on today’s popular culture.

The exhibition offers the chance to see the first ever British fashion magazines, enormous interior design portfolios by the likes of the Adam brothers, Britain’s first celebrity scandal in the press and the 1783 novel behind Pride and Prejudice, Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, which made the young novelist a household name.

Through over 200 historic objects, from rare and beautiful books from King George III’s personal library, to everyday objects and ephemera that are unique to the British Library’s collections, the exhibition reveals just how many of our current hobbies, occupations and interests were established and popularised by the Georgians, from leisure pursuits including fashion, shopping, gardening and sports, to more salacious pastimes including gambling, theatre, dance and celebrity gossip.

In the final room of the exhibition I understand that the floor covering is a massive reproduction of John Horwood’s celebrated map of London. Sounds fabulous. I doubt, however, that I will be able to see this exhibit, but …the exhibition catalogue is available and I have been devouring my copy this week. It has been lovely to be able to get the magnifying glass out to look at the detail of the images within it: playbills, caricatures, topographical engravings, fashion plates, plans of houses, interiors by Soane…it is an enthralling collection of items.

The catalogue, like the books and ephemera that make up the exhibition, is divided, into five different sections: Homes and Gardens, Shopping and Fashion, Culture and Ideas  and finally Leisure and Pleasure. The images and books shown are fascinating, and many are known to us already

Fashion Print of Kensington Garden dresses

Fashion Print of Kensington Garden dresses

but many more are not so familiar, and are intriguing.

The main essay in the catalogue is the Introduction written by Amanda Goodrich. In it she very clearly delineates, in some detail, the various developments in the Georgian era which have resonance for us today; these include the rise of print culture, the consumer society, an obsession with celebrities, philanthropy and charities, and public entertainments. A certain section of society -wealthy and well-to-do Georgian men- had, at this time in history, personal and political freedoms that were denied to many in Europe and the rest of the world. However, Goodrich does makes it quite clear that while for some the Georgian era was a magnificent time in which to be alive, for others it was dire:

Of course this was not a period of unadulterated progress, as so-called “Whig history” would have it. The contemporary belief in an inexorable journey towards the pinnacle of civilisation within the foreseeable future was , as time has shown, misplaced. Progress was uneven and as in all societies, there was a mix of innovation and continued adherence to hidebound tradition. Certainly there were still obstacles in the way of the sort of freedoms and the sense of modernity we take for granted today. In particular life for a large sector of society was “poor, nasty, brutish and short’ to misapply Thomas Hobbes “Leviathan”(1651), and democracy and equality of any sort were a long way off.

From what I have read about the exhibit I am not sure that the grittier side of Georgian life- the industrial revolution and the unrest caused by it, the life of the poor, poverty, food riots, rioting in general, the situation of women in society, etc., etc.,- is covered within it. And it is certainly true that the catalogue’s contents are more associated with the polite section of society than with any other. This may be a problem with the nature of the exhibition material itself, for I should imagine that the books, ephemera and images that survive from that time (and are preserved in the BL’s collection) probably do tend to be reflective of the middling to upper orders of society. As a result the exhibition has been criticised for presenting a too pretty, old-fashioned view of the Georgian era: Professor Amanda Vickery is quietly disturbed by it as you can plain hear (14 minutes 50 seconds into the programme ) in this edition of the Front Row Programme on BBC Radio 4But the introduction certainly redresses that balance and provides a solid counterpoint to all the Georgian gorgeousness. Amanda Goodrich makes it quite clear, for example, that women had a raw time:

The role of some in society represents another example of hidebound attitudes. While free to enjoy the benefits of the consumer society, women had few rights. The ‘rights of man’ meant just that: calls for universal suffrage meant universal male suffrage, and this domination was applied not just in politics but to life in general.This is not to say that women had no agency: many engaged with politics and commerce, owned businesses and wrote published texts. But such activities were circumscribed by law and invention and most, including Jane Austen, did not write under their own name…

Here is a rather arch video about the exhibit presented by Moira Goff, one of the joint curators:

The exhibition can even boast a pop-up Georgian inspired garden designed by Todd Longstaffe Gowan who wrote the wonderfully informative books,The London Town Garden and The London Square. You might also care to look at this fascinating blog entry written by the BL’s conservation department about the work they undertook on some of the exhibits

The exhibit will run until the 11th March 2014, but the catalogue is available to purchase now, and I would throughly recommend it for the Introductory essay alone which is a splendid commentary on the period. But you may also find yourself, as I did, enjoyably lost in the detail of the exhibits…

A new exhibition which promises to be full of interest for us opens today in Brighton. Entitled Dress for Excess: Fashion in Regency England, it opens on the 200th anniversary of the passing into law of the Regency Act, which passed de facto powers of ruling Britain and its Empire from George III,who was suffering from the effects of porphyria, to his eldest son, Geroge.

The exhibition will be open for a year, and celebrates the life of George IV as Prince, Regent and King, through the fashions of the late Georgian period. It is organised by the Royal Pavilion & Museums, part of Brighton & Hove City Council, and will  provide an insight into the way these fashions from the late 18th and early 19th century have helped to influence the clothes we wear today.

The Press Release and photographs which the Museum was so kind to send to me yesterday, gives some very tempting descriptions of what is on show, and I quote from it below:

“George loved fashion and design – the more opulent and extravagant the better – and the exotic, oriental design of the Royal Pavilion, which was his seaside residence, bears testament to this.

His coronation was the most expensive in British history and his huge coronation robe is going on public display for the first time in 30 years.

The silk velvet robe, which is trimmed with ermine, measures more than five metres (16 feet) long and needed eight bearers rather than the usual six to carry it at the coronation.

(Gresham Blake, the renowned and acclaimed tailor, takes a closer look at the King George IV’s spectacular 16 foot long coronation robe which forms the centrepiece of the Dress for Excess exhibition. ©Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, photographer Jim Holden)

Alongside his coronation robe will be two costumes worn in his coronation procession.

The exhibition will include men and women’s fashions, from a tailored dandy’s costume and military uniform worn at the Battle of Waterloo to elegant high-waisted cotton muslin gowns and beautiful silk garments, highlighting style influences from the period and themes from George’s life. The costumes are displayed across a number of rooms, set against the grand backdrop of the Royal Pavilion.

(©Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, photographer Jim Holden)

A new exhibition space, the Prince Regent Gallery, is dedicated to George himself. On display will be items of his clothes, including a beautifully printed banyan (an early form of indoor coat or dressing gown) from the 1770s, shown below,

(©Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, photographer Jim Holden)

and huge breeches that George wore towards the end of his life as his waistline expanded.

((L to R) Martin Pel, Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the Royal Pavilion and Museums, Cllr David Smith, Brighton & Hove City Council’s Cabinet Member for Culture, Recreation and Tourism, and designer tailor Gresham Blake in the new Prince Regent Gallery at the Royal Pavilion. They are shown with a huge pair of George IV’s breeches which were worn towards the end of his life as his waistline expanded. ©Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, photographer Jim Holden)

To complement the costumes there will be popular images of George: caricatures will take a satirical look at his life from his many mistresses, his continual descent into debt, and his love of Brighton. These caricatures are taken from the Baker Collection, which was recently acquired by the museum.

These will be contrasted with official portraits of George, showing him as he wished to be seen; as a monarch in his garter robes to military leader in hussar uniform. These paintings are taken from Brighton Museum’s collection.

The exhibition marks the 200th anniversary of the Regency Act, which was passed on February 5 1811, passing the powers of the monarchy to George as his father was ill.

It is only the second time a fashion exhibition has been held in the Royal Pavilion and the building’s rich collections of furniture, textiles and decorative arts provide the perfect setting to bring the pieces to life.

(Gresham Blake and Cllr David Smith with a hand painted Chinese silk robe and petticoat dating from 1760-65 (on loan from Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery) and a gold silk-satin coat, breeches and vest dating from 1780-85, which is part of the Royal Pavilion and Museum’s collection.©Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, photographer Jim Holden)

Smith, Brighton & Hove City Council’s cabinet member for Culture, Recreation and Tourism, said: “George IV really put Brighton on the map as a fashionable seaside destination and this exhibition, in the amazing surroundings of his holiday home, will provide a fascinating insight into both his life and the fashions of the time.”

Martin Pel, Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the Royal Pavilion and Museums, said: “More than any other monarch, George knew the power of dress. Whether it was the dandy fashions of his youth or the military uniforms he wore as an adult, as he sought a role for himself while waiting nearly 60 years to be crowned king. His love of fashion was not merely an expensive indulgence, but a significant part in creating who George was.”

He added: “The Regency period really was the beginning of modern fashion for both men and women. In men’s fashion trousers became the norm, rather than breeches, as did sober colours and hard wearing fabrics such as wool. Women too began to wear simpler styles in practical cotton fabrics. Unlike men’s fashion this wasn’t to last for women and they would soon revert back to clothes which displayed wealth. Interestingly though, when ‘modern’ fashion re-appeared for women in the early twentieth century it was based on the styles of the Regency period.”

The Museum have been kind enough to invite me to view the exhibition,and to write about it here, so in a few weeks time  look out for what I hope will be some very interesting posts about it. Jane Austen was not a fan of the Prince Regent, not at all: but he did, of course, ask her to dedicate “Emma” to him, and his daughter Princess Charlotte was very fond of Miss Austen’s novels, so I’m sure she will forgive me for writing about it here. ( To mis-quote Lydia Bennet in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and PrejudiceI AM going to Brighton!

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