Shopping, by George!

Caroline Bugler on “Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain” at the British Library (until 11 March)

Joseph Van Aken, An English Family at Tea, around 1720 © Tate Britain

How do you make an exhibition visually exciting when so many of the works on show are monochrome pages of minute type or throwaway items such as adverts, tickets or receipts? The British Library has come up with a clever solution by commissioning a series of collages consisting of enlarged details of Georgian prints with a few tongue-in-cheek modern additions, which serve as backdrops to the objects in the display cases. Many of these are books and prints that once belonged to George III and are now part of the Library’s collection, but there are also loans of furniture, costumes, everyday objects and paintings. Near the entrance are oil portraits of the four Georges who occupied the British throne from 1714 to 1830, and whose names define the period, but this is not a show about royalty. It is actually a light-hearted romp through the pleasures and diversions of middle-class life in London as seen through the medium of print, as well as an exploration of how some our modern preoccupations first took seed three centuries ago.

A floor map of London in the final room shows how many elegant streets of classically inspired terraced houses had sprung up by the 1790s, and much of the exhibition looks at what went on in these new homes. The Georgian middle classes evidently whiled away leisure hours in their comfortable drawing rooms by playing cards and music (who knew that Jeremy Bentham had a violin?), dancing minuets and drinking tea. Joseph van Aken’s conversation piece shows a well-to-family seated stiffly at a tea table displaying their best porcelain while the lady of the house picks the precious leaves from a container. Polite society required polite behaviour and conversation, and this was the era when etiquette manuals first appeared. Lord Chesterfield’s missives to his son, intended to instil in him “the manners of a courtier” were published in 1774 – and mocked. Dr. Johnson felt “they taught the morals of courtesan and the manners of a dancing master”. Some years earlier Jonathan Swift had satirised handbooks of decorum in his spoof, Polite Conversation, which features three sharply witty, if not downright bitchy, dialogues. “She’s no chicken,” one woman remarks, “She’s on the wrong side of 30 if she’s a day”.

Lord Chesterfield was not the only prolific letter writer. Jane Austen’s writing desk and spectacles are here as witnesses to the epistolatory mania of the Georgian middle classes. And when they were not writing they were reading – the latest novels by authors such as Fanny Burney or Laurence Sterne, of course, but also newspapers and journals. Fashion and gossip magazines made it possible to keep up-to-date with what the celebrities were wearing and doing on an almost daily basis. Or possibly not wearing: one of the most startling revelations is a small print showing Elizabeth Chudleigh in the costume she wore to the Venetian Ambassador’s masquerade in 1747. Consisting of little more than a wreath of foliage draped around her loins it provoked a scandal that would have given Miley Cyrus a run for her money. Alongside the fashion plates there are reproduction costumes and original shoes, including a fetching pair of mens’ red lace-ups apparently designed for seaside wear. Perhaps they were worn in Margate, which we are told rivalled Bath as a holiday destination for the cultured classes.

On shorter trips outside the home there was enjoyment to be had in public pleasure gardens, theatres, sport, the races, circuses and ballets. Some of the best entertainment at the theatre evidently came from the auditorium rather than the stage, as the house lights were not dimmed and the audience felt free to chat, flirt and fight their way through plays. The music that would have been heard in public spaces comes to life in recordings by the Royal College of Music that boom out through the loudspeakers. Shopping was also developing into something people did for fun, so there are displays of tradesmen’s cards, adverts and catalogues offering a panoply of furniture and wallpaper for the home. The more adventurous could drive their carriages out to stately piles in the countryside in search of inspiration for their own decorative schemes and gardens. Todd Longstaffe-Gowan pays tribute to the newfangled craze for gardening in his amusing garden installation – a six-metre-high “Georgeobelisk” – outside in the Library’s piazza.

This delightful show might have benefited from some more solid information, even, dare I say it, statistics. How many people were able to read, for example? How exactly did the wealthy middle classes make their living? There’s little here about the rural poor or the urban underclasses whose lives were not so profusely documented on the page. Colonialism, globalisation and the South Sea Bubble of 1720 – a premonition of our own banking crash – are all touched on, but briefly. There are back stories to be told about more or less every object, although labels and wall texts inevitably have to be brief. Perhaps it is not such a bad thing to be left wanting more.

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Published Mon, 11 Nov 2013 12:20:00 GMT

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