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The British Library hosts the Georgians

Fashionable Shoe Maker, Georgians RevealedGEORGIANS REVEALED AT THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Georgians Revealed – 8 November 2013 to 11 March 2014 – British Library

It’s fair to say that being sandwiched in the middle of the Tudors and the Victorians has done the Georgians no favours. Like the Stuarts before them, the Georgians suffer the same level of popular neglect when held up against Henry VIII & co and Queen Vic. So it was with great excitement that The History Vault attended a preview of the new exhibition at the British Library.

Georgians Revealed offers a unique opportunity to explore Britain’s great lurch towards modernity. On entering the exhibition you are greeted by gilded portraits of the four men who lend their name to the period – Georges I to IV – but this exhibition is not about monarchy, it’s unashamedly about the lives of the middle classes. From trade and travel to leisure and licentiousness, the exhibition makes a strong case for the Georgians being the forefathers of much of what we recognise as ‘British’ today.

On display are over 200 fascinating and rare Georgian artefacts that  reveal the roots of today’s popular culture. Great care has been taken to select pieces that not only epitomize the time, but visually please. Highlights include: Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia, Jeremy Bentham’s violin, Joseph van Aken’s ‘An English Family at Tea’, a signed manuscript of Handel’s Messiah, Hogarth’s portrait of actor David Garrick as Richard III, an original masquerade mask, a selection of early fashion magazines, some eye-popping rosy-red men’s seaside shoes and a supersized replica of a 1790s London map that visitors can walk over.

Aesthetically, the exhibition is magnificent. The entire area is flooded with a moody dark hue that focusses the eye on the gleaming items displayed. At every turn huge Hogarthian images engender a feeling of entering an 18th century time capsule. Enhancing the atmosphere is the sound of Georgian music (performed by the Royal College of Music). An opulent feast for the senses.

It is to the credit of the curators that they veered away from simply packing the exhibition with portraits of famous characters. While the great names of the period – such as John Nash, Thomas Chippendale, Fanny Burney and George Frideric Handel – are acknowledged, they are done so in relation to how they shaped the lives of ‘ordinary people’; adding a depth that could have been lost. Taken as a whole, the exhibition works to show just how much of our contemporary world was established and popularised by the Georgians.

At the preview Dr Moira Goff explained, ‘this is a playful and light-hearted exhibition, but we haven’t neglected the serious’. Indeed, slavery is alluded to in a display that explores the habit of ‘taking tea’ (it is the topic of conversation at the tea table), but some may feel that this aspect of Georgian life could have been explored further. Personally, I would have liked to have seen a little more on crime and policing during the time (after all it was during this period that the Bow Street Runners evolved into a police force). Having said that, the exhibition achieves what it sets out to achieve. It is alive with a fun and frivolity that leaves the visitor satisfied, interested and, quite frankly, impressed.

Boxing off history is a tricky business, but Georgians Revealed triumphs in breathing life into the long gone inhabitants of the eighteenth century. They emerge as a distinct people who embraced the modern world with verve.

Full details of the exhibition can be found on the British Library website.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain runs from 8 November 2013 to 11 March 2014.
Prices: Gift Aid £10, Standard Adult £9, Over 60s £7, Other concessions £5, Under 18s Free, Friends of the British Library Free

About Rebecca Rideal

Founder and editor of The History Vault, Rebecca is a historian of seventeenth-century England, a former specialist factual television producer, and the author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

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