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Review: Two Last Nights! Show Business in Georgian Britain.
Foundling Museum. 20 September 2019 – 5 January 2020

title250Having made a spirited recovery in the late Stuart period following the Restoration and into early Georgian times, public entertainment venues in London remained few. This all changed as the 18C progressed and more of the population found themselves better off and with more leisure time. Pursuits that were mainly the domain of the well-off spread to the growing middle class. Simultaneously, forms of entertainment became more diverse, notably the emergence of pleasure gardens such as Vauxhall, Ranelagh, Bagnigge Wells and others.

This is the subject of a new exhibition at the Foundling Museum. While the growth of the entertainment industry was nationwide, the fountainhead was inevitably London. This show examines primarily the business of public entertainment rather than the forms on offer, although we get a bit of that too. So we are primarily looking at the theatres themselves, the marketing, the consumes, the fashions and – most entertainingly – how the theatre-goers were perceived, and also satirised.

dressing up

Miss Rattle dressing for the Pantheon, 1770s.

Entering the exhibition we are first met with marketing materials mainly in the form of printed handbills. all are in the distinct period multi-typeface, centre-ranged, capital-heavy form of the time. Nonetheless, competition was stiff and it’s quite sophisticated stuff from which the title of this show derives.

handbill

Handbill for Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.

Most of the ephemera on display relates to tickets. Except in the cheapest of cheap seats in the pit or the ‘pidgeon holes’ (crammed sections in the Gods with heavily constricted views), theatre-going remained quite pricy and I think this is reflected in the beauty of the engraved tickets which often featured the architecture of the theatre and other classical forms. Some even bore wax seals. They could be anything from modern post card size almost up to A4 in some cases.

But for me, the most fun part was relating to the audience. Hogarth’s famous Laughing Audience is here, of course, but there are many more along the same lines including the best of Rowlandson – one in particular which makes the point that country audiences in rough and ready theatres enjoy themselves far more than the stiffy, sniffy city types. It is a point which one might care to refute knowing the reputation of a typical London audience which – as is shown in several pictures – is separated from the players literally with a rows of metal spikes.

comedy in the country500

Comedy in the Country, Tragedy in London. By Rowlandson.

I would have liked to have seen something on two forms of public entertainment which were invented in this period: Satire, as presented by Samuel Foote (1720 – 1777) at his own patent theatre in the Haymarket; and Astley’s Circus, as presented by Philip Astley (1742 – 1814). Both were almost instantly successful and the latter in particular begat imitators which have continued down to today.

Print, satire, entertainment, fashion. All flourished in the Georgian period, and all are bought together here in this exhibition in a most pleasing way.


The entry to Two Last Nights! is free with your Foundling Museum ticket which is £13.20 for adults. National Art Fund members get into the museum entirely free of charge. 

 

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