Wednesday 5 March 2014

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain (British Library)

Marking the 300th anniversary of the accession of George I this major exhibition highlights the transforming face of Britain under the rule of the four successive Georges, and shows how this period helped shape modern Britain.

This is a lavish exhibition, showcasing the style and artistry of the upper echelons of Georgian society. With an ever-growing middle class conscious of seeming to be fashionable, gardens and houses were good opportunities to show off. There were some lovely examples of wallpaper on display - the decoration absolutely central to the display of style in the Georgian home, and one that could be changed regularly to keep up with the ever changing fashions. In this opening section there were incredibly beautiful, intricate pictures of plants in gardening books, and architectural images highlighting the importance of aesthetics, and serving to immerse you in the grandeur of the Georgian period.

It wasn't just the exterior and interior decoration of the home that the middle class were concerned with. Luxury goods were being imported, and were an excellent opportunity to show off wealth and style. There are sample books on display showcasing the different furniture available to the style conscious homeowner, illustrating the rise of consumerism, as well as some genuine Wedgwood, alongside a letter in the great man's very own hand. There was, however, a darker side to this luxury and burgeoning consumerist lifestyle - namely the slavery that made it possible. In amongst this beautiful, extravagant exhibition, it feels important that they acknowledge this, not allowing the exhibition goer to get completely caught up in this decadent world, and remind us that this luxury came at a very real human cost. There were those who opposed slavery before the Slave Trade Act of 1807 however, and included in the display is Wedgwood's famous anti-slavery medallion of 1787.

The fashion industry and celebrity culture began life with the Georgians. Clothing was often rather impractical, highlighting the emphasis on style over comfort and purpose. One of my favourite items from this section was the book of silk samples from a dressmaker. The wealthier of the population would have been subjected to critiques of their fashion choices in newspapers and magazines aimed at both men and women, showing that it wasn't merely the preserve of women, and that gossip columns are not an invention of the twentieth century.

It wasn't all celebrity scandal and fashion however. There was a surge in culture - new museums and theatres opened, and ballet became a separate form of entertainment. Dance was central to a lot of celebratory gatherings but it was not as flawlessly elegant as many a period drama would have us believe. Of all the portrayals of dances on display, most of the participants appear awkward and uncomfortable. In Hogarth's 'Country Dancing from the Analysis of Beauty' there is only one couple who look truly graceful and elegant, standing out against the rabble of other dancers. 

This is a lavish, extravagant exhibition that draws you in to the glamour and splendour of Georgian Britain. There isn't much in terms of the lower classes or the darker side of life, excepting of course the guide to prostitutes of London (Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies), and the criminals who because infamous celebrities. It achieves its aim of showing the many and various ways the Georgians shaped modern Britain. A wonderful array of absolute treasures side by side with the more day to day items, this is an absolute gem of an exhibition. I'd happily go back for a third visit.

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