Review: Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain.
The British Library
The Georgian period (patron saint: D Cruickshank) has overtaken the Tudor (patron saint: D Starkey) in recent times and if you’re still not with the programme, as they say, then this is the show that’ll help you catch up toot sweet.
The trigger for the show is the tricentenary next year of the birth of the Georgian dynasty, in 1714. The settlement of 1701 meant that the Elector of Hanover leapfrogged over 50 Catholic pretenders to become King George I on the death of Queen Anne, the last Protestant Stuart.
But the four Georges – whose portraits appear right at the start of this show – are simple date markers who take no further part in proceedings. This exhibition, characterising the period, is all about the emerging middle classes, increasing in in both wealth and in numbers, who become firmly established for the first time. And for the first time we have a new set of people outside the nobility who have a lot of leisure time as well as the financial means to fill it.
In the service of this came a massive explosion of printed matter, some genres emerging for the first time: newspapers, periodicals, novels, satire, children’s literature, self-help books, fashion magazines, travel guides, maps, treatises. Increasingly, trade was done on credit, honour and promise (often with disastrous consequences), so instead of bullion, there emerged cheques, promisary notes, shares, bonds, chits, and so forth. There are some rather nice examples from Hoare & Co, posh bankers.
The British Library has items such as these in abundance and this being their show, these objects are the mainstay. Even the ones that contemporaries may have thought mundane are beautiful in their own right. Although the Georgian period embraced simplicity in, say, architecture, in print they were very showy. Most of the items on show feature elaborate and beautifully executed engravings accompanied by highly elaborate text. This is most typified by frontispieces which are a riot of typefaces, often a dozen and more.
The Georgians were interested – obsessed even – in taste, manners, deportment, fashion. They talked about it, read about it, wrote about it. They were consumers of new kinds of food, decor, luxury goods. They pursued hobbies and sport. They were interested botany and gardening and travel. They liked to visit gardens and country houses and towns in the provinces. All of this had to be written down, codified and published, to make sure it was done right. I particularly liked a section featuring the Compleat Tutor… series of self improvement books, very much the …For Dummies of the Georgian period.
The big guns of the period are represented and in general no big surprises. In architecture, for example, it’s Adam, Soane and Nash. The Soane section is particularly nicely done with a very large hand drawn representation in ink of Adam’s Alelphi, so a two for one there. Our favourite Georgian piss-takers – Hogarth, Gillray, Cruikshank – are judiciously and sparingly used. The choice of Hogarth’s “Country Dancing” from the Analysis of Beauty is inspired, I really did giggle.
There are dozens else. Pugilism, the Turf. Cock throwing. Heard of that? At fairs, punters threw sticks and stones at a tethered chicken. The winning shot won the dead chicken. A beautiful series of four large scale maps of Kensington turnpike featuring all the shops and fancy houses from Knightsbridge through Kensington High Street. Beautiful. Pleasure gardens, theatres and opera. Dancing. Picnics, philanthropy. One of the heroes of this blog: Philip Astley, the circus guy.
I have written mainly about the print: it dominates. But there is a strong supporting cast comprising household items, clothes, shoes, accessories and ephemera. Most pleasing for me: Jeremy Bentham‘s violin. He’s another son of London we admire.
Overall, the show is inevitably very London-centric. Therefore the big London room at the end with the entire floor being a large Georgian map of London is somewhat superfluous, but fun nonetheless and great for us London Historians.
Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain runs from 8 November until 11 March 2014 at the British Library. Tickets £9, usual concessions apply. All information here.