The subtitle of the British Library’s Georgians Revealed exhibition is Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain. The most startling thing that Georgians Revealed reveals is just how similar life was then to now. Of course there were less mobile phones and things that go beep, but the Eighteenth century was when modern got its act together and started making an effort. The Georgians had decks of cards, just like us. They had lotteries, just like us. They even had stock market crashes, just like us. Between 1714 when the first George acceded to the throne and 1830 when the last Georgian George died life had been transformed and was well on the path to the celebrity-obsessed, sports-loving society we endure, sorry, enjoy, today.
The exhibition starts with portraits of Georges One to Four getting progressively fatter and more profligate. High above, ‘too high to see,’ as one woman commented, hang images from old adverts, cartoons and drawings, along with some of the important dates of the period. I guess it tells a lot about a nation to see what it counts as important dates. Along with the Jacobite Rebellion and the losing of the American colonies, the 1736 Gin Act is included. Or maybe it is just a reflection of the curator’s interests…
Wealth and leisure combined in 18th century Britain to create a sizeable society with time to be interested in more than just where their next pork chop was coming from. Although as one rhyme in a children’s book on display points out ‘If half the world knew how the other strives, it would spoil the comfort of their easy lives‘. Similar sentiments apply today, and it’s easy to see which half of the world contains those of us wandering around an exhibition showing trinkets from the 18th century. But trinkets need viewers, just as much as the poor need food (This is patently untrue – Editor).
These are not just any old trinkets. The BL has a rich collection of personal items from the rich and famous. You might be looking at an old writing slope and think, hang on, I’ve seen these before, many times, I didn’t come to the British Library to see an old writing slope. But then you discover it was used by Jane Austen. And the trendy minimalist spectacles next to it are hers as well. And the letter lying on the slope was written by her to her brother. (The writer of Pride and Prejudice had that very neat writing that is almost impossible to actually read). Similarly a Hogarth print of David Garrick playing Richard III is not a reprint or just any old print from the time, but the very one that Garrick himself used to own. An old violin is not just an old violin, but the one on which Jeremy Bentham used to fiddle – whilst presumably calculating whether his incessant racket brought more happiness to himself than it took away from everyone around.
So much that we take for granted appeared first in the Georgian era. Tea became a fixture in the afternoon, although it was a luxury, not something that ladies would make a cup of for the builders putting a new privy in the Manor. Today we might pop out for a latte and think we’re modern and sophisticated, but the Georgians were already frequenting coffee shops, and they had much better names than Caffe Nero or Starbucks. One was stylishly called Jonathan’s, which developed into the first Stock Exchange. That’s unlikely to happen to your local Costa Coffee.
Printing was allowing daily newspapers to flourish and mass-produced furniture made its first appearance. Made by no less than one T. Chippendale. Nowadays we think of Chippendale as the height of hand-made furniture, but actually he was an early form of Ikea. Fashion victims appeared in large numbers as the advertising industry cranked up to persuade people they needed the latest preposterous wig/pair of shoes/ bloomers. One pamphlet on display makes the outrageous claim that French women invented dresses to disguise the imperfect bodies that nature had given them. Clearly the trend to appeal to as many people in as many countries as possible was one thing that the Georgians didn’t worry about.
Everything in the show is behind glass, the whole gallery darkened almost to the point of candle-light, giving a sense of how exhibitions would have been lit in Georgian times.
The show does not shy away from showing that under the veneer Georgian England was a cruel society. Much of the leisure and wealth was funded by the slave trade, and there is a Wedgewood Slave Medallion to demonstrate that people were already trying to end it. There was also a nascent understanding of animal rights, but much more interest in pastimes that appear unbelievable to 21st century eyes. An image shows a popular fairground attraction, where people took it in turns to throw stones at a coc…you might think I’m going to write coconut, but no, it was a cockerel. The winner was the person who dealt the final blow that killed it. The prize? The dead bird itself.
In many ways society hasn’t improved. We still have the massive wealth disparities and the love of preening. Thankfully we no longer stone animals to death for fun.