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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
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 4. But 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…