The title of the British Library’s new exhibition Georgians Revealed: Life, Style, and the Making of Modern Britain makes a bold statement about the period of history it explores. I think it’s fair to say that several historical eras could make a claim to being the one that made modern Britain and, naturally, it would depend a great deal on how one defined ‘modern’ Britain as to which of these eras’ claim was best. Post-World-War-II and the making of the welfare state? The Thatcher era? The Reform Act? No, with this definition of modern Britain, we’re venturing far further back in time than that.
What struck me as I made my way around this exhibition is just how many great British pastimes and hobbies seemed to have been handed down to us from the Georgians. Holidays, shopping, picnicking, gardening, visiting country houses, interior decorating, newspapers and magazines, christmas pantomime, cricket, and of course the drinking of tea, and all the social etiquette that went with it. It would be impossible to imagine the Britain of today without these things. It is, then, the words ‘life’ and ‘style’ in the exhibition’s title that really tells us what kind of definition of modern Britain we are dealing with. What this exhibition shows is that it was in the Georgian period that a certain British way of life was born, and when a British culture came into being. Indeed, I would suggest that when it comes to style, the exhibition goes somewhat further, and makes a case for the very concept of style itself, along with taste and fashion, taking root in Britain in this period. After all, fashion magazines, furniture catalogues, department stores and shopping arcades are all Georgian inventions.
At the heart of all this was the British middle class. Which is why the four successive Georges who ruled Britain between 1714 and 1830 and gave their name to this era are, after being introduced to us at the very start of the exhibition, essentially ignored. As are the majority of the most famous faces from the period we might already be familiar with, from generals and empire-builders to scientists and inventors. And no, the working class don’t really get a look-in either. The poor, the desperate and the downtrodden of 18th century London so vividly brought to life by Hogarth may be largely forgotten, but to be fair to the exhibition, it has a particular story to tell and it sticks to it rather well.
Technically, there had always existed in Britain – along with everywhere else – a group of people who sat somewhere between the land-owning nobility and the peasantry, but throughout the medieval period this ‘middling sort’ were incredibly few and far between, consisting of a handful of merchants, tradesmen and skilled craftsmen. This began to change during the Tudor period, when the ‘middling sort’ grew in number, and in wealth and influence (and more of them began to get their portraits done, as seen in the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition Elizabeth I and her People). By the eighteenth century, the middle class made up one third of the British population. And with the Industrial Revolution very much underway by the second half of the Georgian period, the middle class continued to grow faster than ever. For the first time in history, a large chunk of the population had disposable income, and time in which to spend it. Little wonder, then, that this was age that first invented the idea of leisure and recreation, and when all those great British hobbies and pastimes came into being.
The Georgian period was when what we would now identify as being thoroughly middle-class sensibilities were truly established. A great deal of these sensibilities we would also identify as being particularly British, such as an obsession with manners and etiquette, and with how one decorated one’s home. True, the middling sort had always tried as best as they could to imitate the upper-class, in both their behaviour and in what they spent their money on, but it was not until the Georgian era that the right set of circumstances existed for them to properly go about doing it. Firstly, literacy was now widespread enough, and mass-print media abundant enough – everything from daily newspapers and fashion magazines to cookery books and wallpaper catalogues – for people to easily keep up to speed with what everybody else thought was tasteful and what wasn’t (in other words, fashion was born). Secondly, mass production and the increasingly global nature of trade meant that for the first time, those outside the wealthy elite could get their hands on quality goods and exotic commodities. In short, you now had everything you needed to be able to keep up with the Jones’s.
With the printed word playing such a pivotal role in shaping the lives of the Georgians, it is appropriate that it is what dominates the exhibition. And, of course, it is what a library does best, and the British Library sure has an extensive collection to cherry-pick from (in case you’re not in the mood for extensive amounts of reading, fear not, there are plenty of pictures!).
A copy of the first ever daily newspaper, first pressed in Fleet Street in 1702, is here, as is the forerunner of all of today’s magazines for women, The Lady’s Magazine (‘an Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, Appropriated Solely to Their Use and Amusement’). There is the genesis of the fashion industry in the shape of the Gallery of Fashion, a series of colour illustrations depicting what celebrities of the day were wearing. There are magazines and pamphlets on all manner of topics, including the Tea-Table, a twice-weekly magazine on all the nuances and subtitles of tea-table manners and the art of tea-time conversation. There’s The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour, a comprehensive guide to manners and etiquette, open at a page containing detailed instructions and accompanying illustrations on how a man should take off his hat when introducing himself to a lady. And the books really do come in all shapes and sizes, from the enormous, lavishly illustrated guide to plants and horticulture, to the delightful children’s books on how to behave in polite society that are about the size of a matchbox. I especially enjoyed the The Art of Cookery, Britain’s first mass-produced cookery book, first published in 1747, open at a page with a recipe for ‘a curry the India way’ (‘You are to observe the Sauce must be pretty thick’). There’s also a fine set of posters from the period, advertising plays, circuses and all manner of other amusements, including ‘the Learned Goose’, a goose that could apparently tell the time, carry out basic arithmetic and predict the weather (‘of interest to the public in general, and those of real knowledge particularly.’)
With so much to read about, the middle class now had a whole lot to talk to each other about, and the Georgian era saw an explosion of venues in which to do just that. On the smaller end of the scale, there was the coffee-house, which first appeared in Britain in the mid-seventeenth century, and numbered several hundred in London alone by the middle of the Georgian period. They were frequented by those from all classes, and so acted as great social levellers (well, for men at least, since women were banned) and from the outset became associated with reformist politics. They became a popular forum for conducting business, away from the drunken raucousness of taverns (both the Stock Exchange and Lloyds were born in City of London coffee houses). Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the cities were tea gardens, perfect for those who wanted to escape the noise and dirt of the city for an afternoon, and take in some tea, some fresh air and admire a selection of exotic plants. But of course, it was not all totally respectable – taverns were still as popular as ever, as were brothels. There was even a book to help and advise in that department too, an edition of which is on display: Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies was a handy pocket-sized dictionary of all of the red light district’s ‘most celebrated Ladies of Pleasure’ published each year between 1757 and 1795.
At the other end of the scale, there were the venues for mass assembly, many of them new to Georgian Britain, from the grand pleasure gardens at venues such as Vauxhall and Ranleigh, to assembly rooms and ball rooms. Dances, masked balls and firework displays would provide an entertaining backdrop to the far more important activity of networking. Theatres were already well-established by the eighteenth century, but grew even more popular, and like the coffee-house, were open to people of all classes.
But perhaps the most fascinating of all the cultural phenomena that were spawned in the Georgian period, itself another consequence of the spread of literacy, print media, and public assembly, was what we would call today ‘celebrity culture.’ Much like today, it was not just the news and current affairs that people became interested in keeping up to speed with, but the lives of famous – and infamous – people. There is a section of the exhibition dedicated to two of Britain’s first true celebrities: one was named Jack Sheppard, a burglar and highwayman who became famous for escaping from Newgate prison no less than four times, and published an autobiography ghost-written by Daniel Defoe before the law finally caught up with him and he was hanged. The other was Elizabeth Chudleigh, a socialite who caused a stir when she turned up for a masked ball at Ranleigh pleasure gardens (barely) dressed as Iphigenia, a character from greek mythology, who went on to have a string of high-profile lovers and was eventually convicted of bigamy. An accompanying video explores how the public became fascinated by the twists and turns of their lives. As was the case with the British Library’s Propaganda exhibition in the summer, the video interviews make for some of the most interesting bits of the exhibition, so I strongly recommend stopping and taking them in.
Besides all the text and contemporary illustrations, the British Library have borrowed an assortment of other items to liven things up a bit, and they help to bring some of the aforementioned hobbies and pastimes of the Georgian middle class to life. There’s a violin that belonged to Jeremy Bentham, a wicker picnic hamper and all of its accessories from about 1800 (checked napkins and cutlery all present and correct), a pack of playing cards, and a pair of men’s shoes believed to be beach footwear (a day out at the seaside was another Georgian invention). There are also some small strips of contemporary wallpaper – scarcely any of which has survived from the period – bursting with vibrant colour. Since it could be bought relatively cheaply and replaced relatively easily as fashions changed, wallpaper was tremendously popular, and was something that the Georgians bought an estimated two million yards of in total.
But if one thing that the Georgians left behind trumps all others it has to be public galleries, museums and libraries. To be a respectable member of society, it was not enough just to wear the right clothes, buy the right furniture and see the right plays. An institution like the British Museum, first opened to the public – for free – in 1753, was a place to be seen, and to network, in much the same way as a pleasure garden or a ballroom was. But more than that, being seen admiring art or classical sculpture ensured that people thought you were an intellectual, and that your taste in interior design or fashion was well-informed. If you were not rich enough to indulge in a ‘grand tour’ (an epic journey across the mediterranean exploring the relics of antiquity and admiring classical architecture) at some point during your formative years, exploring London’s wealth of new museums and galleries was the next best thing. By the end of the reign of George IV in 1830, the British Museum, Royal Academy of Arts (1768), Royal Institution (1799) and the National Gallery (1824) had all sprung up amongst the theatres, coffee houses, pleasure gardens and shopping arcades of London. And if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have much to write about in this blog. So thank you, Georgians!
Georgians Revealed runs at the British Library until 11th March 2014. Tickets are £9 but FREE for under 18s. Ticket information and a video trailer of the exhibition can be found here.