Georgians Revealed British Library
By damekor, Aug 8 2014 11:35AM
GEORGIANS REVEALED - REVIEW BY DAME K
By OFH, Mar 4 2014 04:59PM Posted on Off The Hook
Recently I ventured back to the British Library to check out the current exhibition ‘Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain’.
The Georgian era of British history started in 1714 spanning more than a century, this era saw the reign of four kings ending in 1830 with the death of George IV. In the entrance of the exhibition we are given a brief history of these kings. George IV passionate about fashion and the arts was the successor to George III patron of the arts and sciences and King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain after 1801 with the union of these two countries. He succeeded George II of Great Britain, the last British monarch to lead an army in battle, who was successor to George I of Great Britain, the first monarch of the House of Hanover. However, his powers were diminished as Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, led the first cabinet government.
The design of the entrance was very striking. A mass of images and text hung from the ceiling and adorned the right hand wall. There are snippets of historic headlines, for example…“Abolition of the slave trade in 1807”, “Gin act increases duty on spirits provoking riots 1736”.
The legacy of Georgian Britain is all around us, in the buildings and parks of London and provincial towns and cities. Our daily lives are still shaped by a period when urban life was transformed.
After the introduction there is a section on Tea. Yes, tea, a great staple of Britain. Although a tea bag nowadays costs about 2p and anything in the region of £1.50 for a cuppa if you have it out, in the Georgian era it was part of a ‘luxurious’ past time, to take tea and converse, it was expensive and how well a women poured tea spoke volumes of her social accomplishments. What really made me laugh was…On the table lay a pamphlet called ‘The Tea Table’ in which you could read about suitable topics for conversation at your tea table, with your tea caddy and china teacup, saucer and pouring skills.
It all felt a tad restrictive. They were dictated to, being told what the ‘right’ conversations are to have whilst drinking tea! Why not just have conversations? But then I guess it could come in handy if ever you find yourself in an awkward silence at the tea table with nothing to talk about…then again, there’s always the weather!
I shouldn't mock it to be fair, the idea behind it was all based around politeness, etiquette and improved sociability. The Georgians placed a big emphasis on politeness and civilised behaviour, striving for better it seems, a pleasant society, and were big on guide books and rule books. It made me think about the popularity in our day of the ‘Self help’ books.
On display at the exhibition is Jonathan Swift’s book on “Polite Conversation, consisting of smart, witty, droll, and whimsical sayings collected for his amusement and made into regular dialogue” and “Lord Chesterfield’s Maxims: or A New Plan of Education, on the Principles of Virtue and Politeness”. They loved to read and write for pleasure. It was something to be encouraged. “Novels, newspapers and magazines were all avidly consumed, for entertainment and to keep up with the latest in politics, high society and elite taste”. I couldn’t help but think that all feels a bit regimented and conformist, with rules on conversation, what to wear, how to behave, how to move, how to dance, how to woo the opposite sex…enough to induce anxiety and social disorder complexes in those who really feel the pressure for peers, family, society to adhere to the rules. I wondered what would have been the consequence of breaking these rules. I know there is a time and place for things, and politeness is certainly something to be praised and part of our culture, but I’ve always been a bit of a rebel a bit of a rule breaker. I guess I would have been talk of the town.
The Georgians loved a good gossip and loved scandal. I’ll come to this later…
So tea was for ladies, but what about the men you’re thinking. That’s okay they had coffee. See, I’d probably like to partake in the Tea Table conversations for a bit, but it seems the men had more fun in the coffee houses of Covent Garden, that plus I’m a coffee addict. The image of the bustling, loose and lively coffee houses with discussions on any and everything, including reviews of plays is frankly slightly more appealing. And apparently all classes were treated equally in the coffee houses, that’s got to make for a more interesting conversation.
So it seems from this exhibition we have a lot to thank the Georgians for, the birth of the fashion industry, pantomime and ballet. It seems they were doing it all long before us. They even had the whole celebrity obsession sewn up, they loved celebrity and like I said, scandal and gossip, not just on the actors and actresses of the times, royalty, society but also they loved being abreast with the criminal Jack Sheppard who was a big celeb. He did escape prison FOUR times; I mean you got to hand it to him. The boom of the print culture made people famous. Hordes would hang out at the pleasure gardens, which were all the rage. They had a split personality…during the day the gardens were the place to have a good gossip, the place to be seen by certain people, to see certain people, and at night the place to have a good seeing to, (if you get my drift.) good ole debauchery. I’m not a big one for gossip, quite frankly most of the time I couldn’t care less who was seen with whom and where, but each to their own, and I have to admit it does sound quite exciting back then.In some way it really must have been an interesting time to have been alive, I mean the things we take for granted today were being founded then. How mind blowing must it have been for people when museums and art galleries were being opened and it all became accessible not just to the privileged, and people who’d never travelled seeing things from other countries. Theatre was a bit of different ball game, it was well established and it was another place to be seen and heard. Audiences were rowdy and in 1763 there was a riot in the Covent Garden Theatre because ticket prices were rising, the riot left the auditorium wrecked and of course the performance cancelled. Imagine if people then knew the prices some of these west-end shows are demanding now, with ceilings falling in on the audience, I am of course, talking about the recent disaster at the West End’s Apollo.
The exhibition is predominantly focused on the middle classes of the era and what they got up to and how they helped the poor, with exhibitions and benefit performances to support The Foundling Hospital, where women unable to care for their little ones would leave them. There was one print specifically about the poor that stood out to me, and that was a drawing of four characters, clearly deeply affected by alcohol. Otherwise, the focus was horse races, cricket, fireworks, playing music, decorating their home, being at the height of fashion and swanning off to spas and country holidays. Oh and they loved to shop. Just as much a consumerist society as we have today. It seems also that many people were in debt, just like today, but at the time it didn’t really have the stigma attached to it as it does today. And the murky truth behind it all was the slave trade, although abolished here during the Georgian era; we still play a part in it in other countries.
I enjoyed the exhibition a lot, there is a lot more than what I touched on, it’s worth going to. It certainly does focus on things that feel very familiar; however, I’m sure there is so much about the Georgian era that we really can’t relate to. I also would have liked to have found out more about what life was like for the poor, the criminals who weren’t celebrities, the underworld, the women who left their babies at the Hospital, the widespread alcoholism, the binge drinking in the gin lanes, the gin riots, basically…the dirty, devastating and grittier aspect of life in that era.
The exhibition runs until 11th March.
The British Library,
96 Euston Road,
Tickets £9. Concessions £5