James Gillray: A Cockney and his Wife going to Wycombe. London, 1805 © British Museum

300 Years And Counting

15th November 2013

Jill Glenn reviews the new exhibition at the British Library

The Georgians have always struck me as a forgotten era. We're au fait with the Victorians, who are really only just around the last corner, historically speaking; we're saturated with the Tudors, thanks to Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel… but the Georgians?

The British Library's new exhibition – Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain – seeks to tell us, and to draw parallels with the people we are now.

The exhibition marks the 300th anniversary in 2014 of the accession of King George I to the British throne. Given that next year is also the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, this tercentenary, significant as it is, isn't likely to get so many column inches. Full marks to the BL, therefore, for getting in ahead of time.

The gift shop (conveniently situated just outside the entrance into the exhibition itself) sets the scene: opulent textiles, elegant china, gorgeously thick books with titles in suitably classical typefaces. If you really want to know more about the period 1714-1830 there's plenty here to tell you. The Secret History of Georgian London by Dan Cruikshank, for example, a hefty 654 pages, with a strapline promoting Jeanette Winterson's opinion of it as 'Belle de Jour for the 18th century'; alongside it is Lucy Inglis's Georgian London: Into the Streets, a 400 page journey through the city, that springs it vividly to life. You almost don't need the exhibition…

…except, of course, you do. Reading about the Georgians is all very well, and, indeed, thoroughly in keeping with the spirit of an age in which there was a huge explosion in print culture, but it was a highly visual time as well: you need to see what the Georgians were all about.

Step through the door, then, into 1714. You're greeted by a sizeable impression of a Georgian street to set the scene. This type of graphic permeates the whole show, and, fabulous as I thought the first one, the conceit becomes a little irritating; the little visual indications about Georgian obsessions such as celebrities and shopping – the ‘subtle contemporary hints’ as curator Moira Goff describes them, which are designed to link the Georgian age with our own – rapidly lose their appeal. The inclusion of WH Smith and RBS among the shop fronts might have seemed funny to the exhibition organisers but I found it immature. At some basic level it seemed to falsify everything we were seeing. Similarly the inclusion of the phrase ‘Find it in the Yellow Pages’ among a later quasi-authentic backdrop led one poor journalist to ask 'did they really have...' before being told ‘no, that's just our little joke’ and retiring in embarrassment. But at least at the Press View we had the curator to tell us so; the average gallery goer could come away with a very skewed view. It's a small criticism, but it reflects Goff’s stated intention that the exhibition should be 'playful, lighthearted'. Curious that she should take this view with such a wealth of material at her disposal.

Before the main exhibition there's a small section devoted to the four King Georges who sat on the throne from 1714 to 1830: the Georgian century, as we might call it. The books, maps and music that George III amassed as a patron of the arts and sciences (all of which are in the British Library) form the basis of the show, augmented by artefacts loaned from a number of key institutions, notably the Museum of London and the British Museum. The panels and portraits are a useful brief introduction (George I, ‘an experienced ruler and distinguished soldier’; George II, ‘the last British king to lead his troops into battle’ etc) but almost irrelevant… it’s the Georgians, not the Georges, that we are here to meet.

Van Aken: An English Family at Tea c1720 © Tate Britain

Leaving royalty behind, the exhibition instead focuses on the rapidly changing lives and experiences of the middle classes, who numbered perhaps a third of the population by the end of the period, and who developed, during this fast-moving Georgian century, interests and habits that still shape our lives today. Instead of telling a sequential story, it has been subdivided into several themes, which illustrate the preoccupations of the age. Part one, for example, is Public Places, Private Spaces, which addresses the changes in both external landscapes – the architecture of Robert Adam, John Soane and John Nash; the redesign of parks and gardens (we were a nation of gardeners and garden lovers even then); the introduction of coffee shops and pleasure gardens – and domestic interiors, where refinement and elegance and being on-trend became key aspirations. Via a little tableau of a tea table, complete with china and popular newspapers of the time, we're introduced to the ritual of tea making and drinking; above hangs a picture, An English Family At Tea, c1720, which illustrates both the formality of the process and the prospect of civilised conviviality to come… and which segues nicely into another preoccupation of the time: politeness. Perhaps it's inevitable that that an era noted for its bawdiness, its scandals and crimes, should have, at least on the surface, such an obsession with decorum. The observance of codes and rules, in everything from conversation and letter writing to dress and interior design was critical. It didn’t do to be vulgar.

It did do to be cultured, though, to travel (improvements in road infrastructure allowed us to become tourists and trippers) and to develop wide-ranging interests and knowledge. Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, published in 1728, was designed to ‘answer all the purposes of a library’ in only two volumes, and had gone through more than a dozen editions by 1800. It was the age when art and culture became widely accessible, no longer the preserve of the wealthy and the well-connected. The British Museum was founded, as was the Royal Academy and what is now the Royal Society of Arts. Alongside this came the growth of the ‘charity sector’, with the establishment of schools, hospitals and orphanages. Not for nothing is the early part of the Georgian era called the Age of Enlightenment – although don’t run away with the idea that life was all work and no play: Section Three, The Pleasures of Society, the Virtues of Culture illustrates the blossoming both of intellectual stimulation and sheer entertainment… dance (both watched and performed), circus, theatre and pantomime.

There’s much that is of interest in the BL’s quirky take on the origins of our modern lives but, overall, this is an exhibition that tells you things, rather than shows you. The elements require much explanation. Of necessity, the artefacts are mostly printed material that can only be displayed one sheet at a time; however sumptuous it is, it's really disappointing to see only one page of The Temple of Flora by Robert Thornton, say. The caption can tell you it's now one of the most celebrated botanical books of all time, but once you've admired Passiflora quadrangularis, you want to see more, and you can’t. It's a shame that the British Library hasn't employed the digital facsimile technology that they used to such great effect in the Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination exhibition a couple of years ago. The illusion of turning the pages is a great thing, and serves to plunge you more deeply into the experience. Fascinating as it is, this Georgians show keeps you very much on the outside.

Georgians Revealed continues to 11 March 2014; www.bl.uk

To learn more, visit www.bl.uk/whatson/exhibitions/georgiansrevealed/index.html

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