Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Georgians Revealed?

I recently went to the British Library’s exhibition “Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain”. By tracing similarities between our modern lifestyle and that of the era of the four Georges (1714 to 1830), the exhibition explores how much of our contemporary culture has its origins in the tastes of the eighteenth century. Many of our favourite obsessions – celebrities, fashion, shopping, sport, tourism – were enjoyed by the Georgians.

The point is illustrated in part by the careful grouping of objects in themes such as homes and gardens, shopping and fashion, culture and ideas, and leisure and pleasure. These themes are reflected in the arrangement of the beautifully-illustrated book which accompanies the exhibition.  

There are the sort of items I pretty much expected to see, without which no Georgian exhibition would be complete, such as teapots, theatre programmes and prints. Then there were things I was thrilled to see: The Tea-Table, the periodical produced by Eliza Haywood between February and June 1742, and a five-volume edition of Frances Burney’s novel Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress caught my eye because of my interest in both writers. Finally, there were some delightful surprises. These included a set of miniature books for children; a Table of Trades – a sort of Georgian careers guidance book listing details of apprenticeship schemes; and teach-yourself books on dancing and harpsichord playing.   

The exhibition also tells some of the fascinating stories behind many of the objects. A plan of a haberdasher’s shop leads us into an intriguing tale of a possibly kleptomaniac aunt of Jane Austen’s. Letters from a husband in China to his wife in England give us a glimpse into the life of a man far from home who keeps his family in mind by sending back gifts of fabrics and a “cartload” of china. Clowns and highwaymen, courtesans and lace makers: the exhibition teems with Georgian life.  

Well, some aspects of Georgian life. The focus of Georgians Revealed is firmly on the emerging middle classes, the people who found themselves with more money and more leisure time in which to spend it. The labouring classes; the destitute; the not-so-glamorous sex workers who were not ‘courtesans’ to the upper classes but poxed street walkers or child prostitutes; the impoverished people (some as young as twelve) hanged for stealing a loaf of bread in public executions that drew vast crowds...none of these figure in Georgians Revealed. It might seem unfair to mention this, since the exhibition does what it sets out to do – depict the cultural enrichment of the middle classes – very well. However, at the same time it also makes the wider claim that we will “find out all about the Georgians” (on-line introductory video), when in fact (as the exhibition guide acknowledges) the middle class constituted only one third of the population.  

In the process, certain stereotypes about the Georgian age are perpetuated. An underlying narrative of Georgians Revealed is that of societal progress fuelled by developments in manufacturing, agriculture, infrastructure and trade. These developments are characterised as advances and their beneficial aspects emphasised: for example, they bring more freedom of movement and greater choice to consumers. There is some acknowledgement of their less desirable aspects: the exhibition guide mentions consumerism’s “dark side...slavery”, and the book notes the negative impact of enclosure. Nevertheless, the language used to describe commercial and industrial development is overwhelmingly positive, couched in terms of opportunity, choice, innovation, accessibility, social mobility and enlarged spheres. Despite the fact that for many people the benefits were non-existent – the changes could even lower their standard of living – the focus on the middle classes reinforces the image of the Georgian era as an ‘age of progress’.  

The Georgian era was also “an elegant time and a raucous one” (introductory video). I don’t deny that elegance could be found – even our own age manages a bit of elegance now and again – but I can’t help thinking that the elegance of the Georgians has been very much overdone. This was an age when a gentleman, well liked, well respected, well dressed, could without attracting any criticism spend his Saturday afternoons watching dogs tear themselves to pieces for the pleasure and profit of their masters. (Other opportunities for enjoying the spectacle of animal torture offered by this elegant age included cockfighting, bear baiting, goose greasing and fox hunting.)  

It was an age when a printer could produce a catalogue of prostitutes appraising women’s sexual organs and prowess for the benefit of other men (the modern attitude of tolerant amusement to Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies never fails to amaze me). An age where unwanted children were put out with the rubbish (Thomas Corum set up his Foundling Hospital because he was appalled by the sight of dying children in the London streets). An age where for every exquisitely embroidered waistcoat or gorgeous silk gown on the back of an elegant Georgian were scores of half-blind seamstresses and half-starved tailors. And it was an age of slavery. Nevertheless, it is the elegance, not the raucousness, which dominates the exhibition.  

Of course, Georgians Revealed is not solely responsible for such stereotypes, and in fact I think it’s a lovely exhibition and one very much worth seeing. The prints, illustrations and paintings alone make it worthwhile. As an exhibition about aspects of the middle class in the Georgian age, it is excellent. But it would be nice if, one day, we could have an exhibition about some of the other Georgians. An exhibition of the working classes, with the shoes and clothes they wore carefully displayed in glass cases (even if these have to be reproductions), and information about their ‘style’, culture and amusements, would be a welcome counterpart to the ‘elegance’ of the Georgian Age. 


The exhibition runs until 11 March 2014. For details and booking see the British Library website .

Download the free Walking Tour Map of Georgian London from the British Library website.

You can see a slide show of some of the exhibits on the BBC website.
Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain, Moira Goff, John Goldfinch, Karen Limper-Herz and Helen Peden, published by The British Library 2013.