Posted by: michaeldaybath | March 11, 2014

Georgians revealed

Georgians Revealed, The British Library, 8 November 2013 – 11 March 2014

Despite living in one of the quintessential Georgian resort cities, I have only very recently managed to catch-up with the British Library’s most recent exhibition on the Georgians, which has been running since early November last year (and which closes later today) [1].

The full title of the exhibition was Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain, which seems to describe very succinctly the main focus of the exhibition. The emphasis appeared to be on continuities with the present day, so visitors got a good dose of celebrity culture, leisure interests (e.g., music, dance, fashion, sport) and a society characterised by major economic and social inequalities. While the urban poor were not completely ignored (e.g. they featured in prints by Cruikshank and Hogarth), the exhibition seemed mainly to be concerned with the interests and attitudes of the emerging middle classes.

The entrance space provided portraits of all four Georges and some general context, not least on the book collections of King George III, whose King’s Library is still, visually speaking at least, very much at the centre of the British Library’s collections. From there, steps took visitors down to the main exhibition space, divided into three main sections, with an additional room on Georgian London.

Image

Stowe Gardens (Buckinghamshire): The grotto at Stowe featured in a 1749 guidebook

The first section dealt mainly with the rise of taste and politeness, both in the public environment (e.g. architecture, garden design) and in the private sphere (e.g. music, novels, periodicals, advice manuals). In architecture, influences were traced from Palladio’s Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (via translations and builders’ manuals like Pain’s British Palladio) as well as through the works of Robert and James Adam, John Nash, Sir John Soane and Humphry Repton. Interesting exhibits in this section included a magnificent large map of London (Cary’s new and accurate plan of London and Westminster, the borough of Southwark and parts adjacent, 1818), a 1749 guidebook to Stowe Gardens in Buckinghamshire, and an amusing French print of the “English Touring Abroad” on loan from the British Museum. Of interest from a bibliographic point of view was Edward Gibbon’s library catalogue, entries ingeniously hand-written on the back of playing cards.

Section 2 largely covered luxury commodities, noting that the widespread availability of previously exotic commodities like sugar, tea and coffee transformed lifestyles as well as diets in the Georgian era. There was a darker side to this as well, in that the production and trade of these luxury items was heavily dependent on slavery. The exhibition included sections on shops and shopping, fashion (evidencing a growing interest in the clothes worn by elites and celebrities) and the emerging practice of advertising. In this section, I particularly enjoyed looking at the prints of Smithfield Market by Thomas Rowlandson and of Covent Garden Market by Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin (A. W. N. Pugin’s father).

Pulteney Bridge in Bath, designed by Robert Adam, ca. 1774

Pulteney Bridge in Bath, designed by Robert Adam, ca. 1774

The third part of the exhibition was mostly concerned with culture, celebrity and public entertainment. The Georgian era was an age of newer and larger theatres, assembly rooms and pleasure gardens, the last of which definitely had their sleazy aspects after dark. Leisure topics covered in more detail included: dance (the terror of the minuet), pleasure gardens (which were apparently very early social networking sites), coffee houses, sport (an age of codification and gambling) and travel. With reference to the last, it was good to see the New Bath Guide (1797) on display, although I was even more gratified to note that Britannia Depicta or Ogilby improv’d (1720) was open at the very pages detailing the journey from Chippenham to Wells, via Bath.

The Georgian age also hosted a serious celebrity culture; the celebrities introduced in this exhibition including criminals, courtesans and a clown (Joseph Grimaldi). The criminals included the thief Jack Sheppard, who escaped several times from the Newgate prison before finally being executed in 1724, and the “gentleman highwayman” James Maclaine, executed in 1750. Courtesans were represented by the (now well-known) published directories of prostitutes, e.g. Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies. Higher up the social scale was Elizabeth Chudleigh, who shocked Georgian society by attending a Ranelagh masquerade “dressed” as Iphegenia, the costume (apparently) being largely non-existent!

The exhibition also charted the rise of serious cultural institutions, including the British Museum (founded 1753, based on collections bequeathed to the nation by Sir Hans Sloane), the Royal Academy of Arts, and the National Gallery. It also noted the growth of philanthropy, for example noting the support of charitable organisations like the Foundling Hospital (which was supported by both Hogarth and George Frideric Handel) or St George’s Hospital.

A final room provided a more detailed look at Georgian London, the floor itself featuring a large-scale map of the city that I could have happily explored for many more hours.

The exhibition was well-worth a visit. For one thing, it demonstrated just to what extent the Georgian era was based on print culture. Almost every aspect of the era covered by the exhibition could easily be illustrated by printed materials, including books, newspapers, maps, sheet music, prints and ephemera, seemingly mostly derived from the British Library’s own collections.

On the other hand, I was not convinced by every aspect of the exhibition. Perhaps because it was primarily focused on seeking continuities between the Georgians and the present day, the view provided of the era seemed somehow incomplete. In part this may have just reflected the exhibition’s almost exclusive focus on the tastes and interests of the middle classes, but I felt that there were a couple of specific areas where it might have been possible to have provided a more rounded view.

  • Firstly, the exhibition seemed to be overly London-centric. Even leaving aside the room specifically devoted to Georgian London (and its emerging suburbs), it seemed to be obsessed with the concerns of the capital and its elites. By contrast, there was relatively little consideration of the provincial scene, excepting the occasional mention of such exotic places as Bath, Birmingham, Brighton, Margate, and Newcastle. Perhaps this accurately reflects the cultural dominance of London in the Georgian era, but it seemed (to me) to be a bit of a wasted opportunity.
  • Secondly, the exhibition also seemed to neglect some topics that seem (to me at least) essential for a full understanding of the Georgian era, mostly ignoring (for example) the development of medicine and science (with the exception of botany) and the role of the churches. With regard to the latter, one would not have imagined from this exhibition that this was also the age of John Wesley and William Wilberforce, as well as a period of major church reform and Catholic emancipation [2].  A growing population and increasing urbanisation also led to the building of many new churches and chapels. While these were often deprecated by later generations of architects and ecclesiologists, many of those Georgian churches that survive are of great architectural interest [3]. None of this would be immediately apparent to the casual visitor to this exhibition.

However, I suppose that one of the biggest challenges of putting on any exhibition is in deciding what to leave out. As I said before, I found the exhibition to be a thought-provoking – if incomplete – account of the Georgian era, based on the  interests and tastes of the emerging middle classes and evidenced by a wide range of the products of a print-based culture. The exhibition catalogue includes illustrations of most of the exhibits (but not all of the maps) as well as a good deal of additional commentary [4].

 References

[1] British Library, Georgians Revealed: http://www.bl.uk/whatson/exhibitions/georgiansrevealed/index.html

[2] For example, see the essays in: John Walsh, Colin Haydon and Stephen Taylor (eds.), The Church of England c.1689–c.1833: from Toleration to Tractarianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)

[3] Terry Friedman, The Eighteenth-century Church in Britain (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2011)

[4] Moira Goff, John Goldfinch, Karen Limper-Herz and Helen Peden, Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain (London: British Library, 2013)

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