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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…

Reading Enfilade is one of my regular morning pleasures, along with a bowl of porridge, strong tea and freshly squeezed orange juice. For those of you who are unaware of this wonderful blog, I ought perhaps to explain that it is a marvellous compendium of news about 18th century art and architecture, updated nearly every day. It often acts as a nudge to my memory, to remember to book tickets to see an exhibition or to buy a book. Which is very appropriate for today is the blog’s third anniversary and its Editor, Craig Hanson has requested that we mark it by buying a book, an art book preferably, in order to help safeguard that part of the publishing industry. As he writes with dismaying clarity..

So as a gesture of positive action, I’m asking all of you to buy a book today (and fellow bloggers to spread the word). It’s easy to think that it won’t matter, but it does. Most people are astounded to learn just how small the circulation numbers are for art history books published by university presses. However humbling it may be for those of us who spend years of our lives producing a book, it’s not uncommon for only 400 or 500 copies to be sold. Surpass 1000 and you’re a superstar. There’s a tendency to assume that university presses receive generous funding from their host universities. It’s almost never the case. If they’re not in the business to turn huge profits, they must still be economically viable. Several years ago, I heard Susan Bielstein, executive editor at the University of Chicago Press, give a talk on the nuts and bolts of publishing. How did she begin? By asking members of her audience (almost entirely composed of art historians) to go buy a book. She was entirely serious. So am I.

Therefore…in a spirit of solidarity, I have to announce that today I bought a book.(Those of you who know me well will be shocked by this behaviour, I know…well, I actually bought the book under review on Monday…but I did buy another art book today, so I qualify on all counts. Ahem). The purchased book is a splendid and weighty volume, The London Square by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, published by Yale.

The London Square by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan

It is a history, from the 17th century to the present day, of the development of London’s Square, those lungs of green which have been so beneficial to the aesthetic of London and to the pleasure and convenience of its inhabitants. When I lived in London I lived in an area of small jewel-like squares and crescents-Barnsbury- and I still recall with delight walking around that area, enjoying its peace, set as it was between the impossibly busy Caledonian Road and Upper Street.  Jane Austen knew London well, and, indeed, placed her characters in London with characteristic precision. For example, in Emma, Isabella Knightley lives in the “good air” of Brunswick Square, and  in Pride and Prejudice, the Hursts, wealthy people of fashion, lived in Grosvenor Street, which adjoins Grosvenor Square, at a point in time when it was London’s most fashionable and largest square.

A Map of the Grosvenor Estate in 1723, showing Mayfair, with the Grosvenor Estate shaded in pink.

The development of the squares is explained particularly well. Aristocrats owned the parcels of land- in the Grosvenor estates case a mind-blowingly large parcel of 100 acres- and then leased the land to speculative builders. The book is especially good at winkling out interesting nuggets of information. For example, St. James’s Square-a place of terror in my mind, all related to the employment Appeal Tribunals I used to attend and which were held in what was once Lady Astor’s very grand house-did not at first have a green and secluded garden at its heart, but a large circular basin, filled with water. All as a result of the influence of one of Jane Austen’s ancestors, James Byrdges, the Duke of Chandos, a resident of the square, who had

… an amateur interest in hydraulics, who was a shareholder in the water company. It was in any regard a very practical conceit as it (the basin-jfw) served as a reservoir from which water could be drawn in the event of fire

In addition to being superbly written, this book is, as you would expect from Yale, fabulously illustrated. This illustration, below, of Hanover Square in 1769, for example, is fascinating and repays close inspection.(If you click on it a larger version will appear)

Hanover Square by Elias Martin (1769)

Cows graze in the middle distance, boys tease goats and fashionable ladies walk through it all with their trophies -small dogs on leads ( some things never change). I’m not sure this is exactly the scene Mary Crawford was imagining when she envisaged marrying Edmund Bertram here, in Mansfield Park. Or was it? Food for thought.

The second half of the book deals with the development of squares from the late Regency onwards, and I found the chapters dealing with the struggle to maintain the squares in the 1960s -grand and not so grand –  when we seem to lose our way with regard to retaining the historical spaces of our cities, and London in particular, totally fascinating and riveting reading ( though I understand it is not a primary concern for those of you only interested in JAne Austen’s era).However, even Albert Square, of BBCs soap, Eastenders fame, gets an honourable mention, for Mr Longstaffe -Gowan is equally at home writing with authority of both grand projects and those that are rather more humble; for example, the Victorian squares in Hackney and Hoxton. But then he is the president of the London Parks and Gardens Trust. This is a wonderful book, and I think you would all enjoy it…and may even help establish a very worthy tradition of “Buy-a-Book Day”.

You may be interested to read Mr.Longstaffe-Gowan’s other book about an aspect of London life, The LondonTown Garden 1700-1840, shown below

The London Town Garden by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan

First published in 2001, it has been a well-loved member of my library for over ten years, and I still enjoy reading its intelligent prose and devouring the sumptuous illustrations. Re-reading a book and enjoying it years after publication must be the highest practical praise a reader can bestow.

And finally, may I offer all at Enfilade my very sincere congratulations on your anniversary, and I hope for the continuance of my breakfast peace, more from you all to come for a very long time.

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