The Georgians are everywhere; looking around London you notice their influence in architecture, parks and artistic spaces. This new exhibition at the British Library examines the country’s growing prosperity and cultural shift as new modes of manufacturing and expanded trade routes brought new influences to Britain. Fundamentally, it argues that the rein of the four Georges between 1714 and 1830 established a number of middle class tastes and values which are evident in the modern world.
The first section is on the home using architectural books, paintings and etchings from the Library’s collection including the famous crescent at Bath and Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, an incredible mix of Eastern and classical influences made possible by the burgeoning empire. The Georgian home also benefitted from a new approach to gardening where wildness was tamed into order and elegance, embellished with follies, lakes and grottos. Inside, new rules guided interactions whether through the ritual of tea or modes of politeness, with manuals for behaviour and accomplishment, and we get to see Jane Austen’s writing desk and glasses, Jeremy Bentham’s violin, and some beautifully illustrated books of exotic plant-life.
Section two looks at shopping, and it never occurred to me that all that beautiful furniture came from catalogues. There are also prints of customers in a furniture showroom – imagine an 18th Century Ikea where they can browse, customise and order for home delivery. There are also some lovely examples of the first fashion books for men and women, supported by store advertising and trade cards. This sense of being seen to be fashionable extends to the third section on sociability and forms of culture. Being at the theatres and public entertainments was vital; learning to dance from the variety of guides and tutorials meant showing off those skills at assembly rooms; and enjoyment of various kinds could be found at masquerades, sports, gambling houses and pleasure gardens. All of this is also nicely lampooned by contemporary satirists mocking the obsession with celebrities and trivial self-adornment… that sounds very familiar!
There are slight nods to other parts of society, particularly to slavery which underlay the production of luxury goods, as well as to charitable institutions such as the foundling hospital. But essentially this exhibition is a riot of privileges and consumerism that improved the social experience and position of the middle classes. You can argue that a number of these things pre-date the Georgians and you don’t get a huge sense of change within this 116 year period, particularly the political and economic effect of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, as well as the growing discontent and push for greater enfranchisement. Nonetheless this exhibition is nicely pitched, full of excellent information signs, and the British Library has gathered an impressive array of pieces; not just books and prints, but shop signs, shoes, games and much more. Not to mention each exhibition case is wallpapered with relevant engravings that are not only add a stylish touch but enhance what you’re seeing. There’s even a treat for Londoner’s at the end – the floor in the final room is a map of the city highlighting the effects of the period, seen in buildings, ports, factories, squares, churches, street names and green spaces. So, yes, the Georgians really are everywhere, just look around you.
Georgians Revealed runs at the British Library until 11th March and costs £9 at full price.