The Georgian era is a period in British history we don’t tend to focus on all that much. The Roman conquest and Boadicea, sure. Henry VIII and his sordid love life, absolutely. The Victorians and their industrial revolution, of course. But the Kings and Queens of the House of Hanover and how their subjects lived? Less so.
More’s the pity, as the British Library’s exhibition ‘Georgians Revealed’ makes clear. It’s been open a few months but if you haven’t caught it yet you’ve still got time to take a look. The exhibition brings to life an era that had more to it than dandies, wigs and Jane Austen, filling gaps in your knowledge about the architecture, sport, culture and trends of the time. But mostly, it shows how the upper and middle class Georgians were just like us; unashamed consumers, aspirational and fixated with luxury and the latest fashions, keen to copy the lifestyles of those in the East, and rather celebrity-obsessed.
They were travellers too: both those who embarked on Grand Tours of Europe espousing post-Enlightenment ideals, to the first waves of the domestic tourism industry, when stagecoaches transported affluent families for breaks in spa towns, or to seaside resorts like Margate. Architecture and fashion thrived, the former inspired by classical and Roman designs, leaving a mark on cities and towns from Brighton to Bath; the latter as a result of the fashion plates, which sparked a magazine industry showing women what the most stylish were wearing so they could have the designs reproduced by dressmakers.
But the Georgians were also charitable: the display explains how the growing enthusiasm for public celebrations of culture during the period, which saw the opening of both the Royal Academy and the National Gallery, was utilised by a growing group of philanthropists to fund schools and hospitals for the poor, such as the Foundling Hospital. And the upsurge in the printing of pamphlets and magazines paved the way for an age of celebrity, when common criminals could become household names, as in the case of the so-called ‘Gentleman Highwayman’ James MacLeane, whose regular flights from Newgate Prison attracted him quite the following.
The Georgian centuries were fuelled by the East India Company’s success in securing valuable trade opportunities, and thus saw the introduction of new products, including tea, coffee and sugar, to the British palette. Over the era, new fashions came over from the East, influencing pottery, design and even the kitchen, as The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse indicates, with its recipe for ‘a Currey of India’.
The display is text-heavy, meaning this isn’t one for younger visitors, but there are some fascinating details contained in the array of maps, drawings and publications on show, from a surviving printed Bill from the Theatre Royal Covent Garden in 1776, to a receipt for a 4% consolidated annuities stock dating to 1783. There are some real treasures – Georgian high heels, a baffling manual explaining how to do a 16 person Quadrille dance, or examples of Josiah Wedgewood’s pottery, to name but a few.
It comes across as an era of prosperity, when life for many moved beyond consideration of basic needs to luxury, philosophy and travel, although the exhibition notes that it was also a time of a gaping rich-poor divide, and I’d have been interested to see more about how the other half lived. In addition, the display notes that Britain’s trading prowess was largely predicated on the slave trade before its abolition in 1807, but offers little detail beyond that.
Nevertheless, it’s an eye-opening look at an underdiscussed age. Marking 300 years since the accession of King George I, it’s intriguing to see the extent to which British behaviours today recall those of our Georgian predecessors.
Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain, British Library, until 11 March. Tickets: £9, Under 18s: Free