Georgians Revealed, currently on at the British Library, marks the 300th anniversary of the accession of George I in 1714. The king and his successors would lend their name to a period in British history characterised either as vulgar and rowdy or as excessively obsessed with decorum and ideology. The British Library aims to showcase it from a more neutral perspective. Upon entering the first room, where from the ceiling hang garlands of prints displaying different aspects of Georgian life, we read that the Georgian period saw “unprecedented economic, social and cultural changes”. With this opening statement, the exhibition sets itself an important, but difficult task: to give a general account of “the Georgians” by considering change as the determining characteristic of their times. Unfortunately, because of the isolationist perimeters chosen, the lovely display does not quite manage to do so.
As would be expected from the British Library, the exhibition impresses with an astonishing number of precious books and other printed material, mostly from the Library’s own collections. A section on “Reading for Pleasure” explains that the period saw a rise of relatively new types of books and prints, such as encyclopaedias, newspapers and commercial pamphlets. A fine example is the 1807 botanical encyclopaedia The Temple of Flora by Robert John Thornton, which is on display. As an institute promoting and facilitating access to the book, however, the British Library could have gone beyond illustration, addressing and questioning more clearly the importance of print culture to the Georgians.
Although prints and books are the most prominent features throughout the exhibition, several themes are complemented by the inclusion of paintings, costumes, and decorative arts. In a section on the social custom of drinking tea, a display is made up of Joseph van Aken’s 1720 painting An English Family at Tea, a wooden tea table, some porcelain, and two pamphlets on “The Conversations and Reflections at the Tea Table”. In another section, the birth of the fashion industry is brought to life by several costumes. In confronting us with these recognizable facets of modern life, the exhibition comes closest to fulfilling its promise of revealing the making of modern Britain.
But whose Britain is this anyway? The exhibition focuses on the emerging middle class, which grew to constitute one-third of the country’s population, and on London. While choosing to focus on the capital might seem reasonable because of the influence of the Georgian court on the eponymous era, generally speaking the exhibition seems to somewhat limit itself by indulging in the Georgians’ self-referentiality. These were chaotic and uncertain times: change always involves some sort of loss. The middle class appears to have responded to global expansion by establishing a popular culture that faced very much inward, as in the case of the strict rules of etiquette addressed by the exhibition. Although these reactionary dynamics are mentioned, the exhibition insists on presenting the Georgians only as ushering in modernity as progress, thereby allowing them to remain in an historical comfort-zone.
Despite these remarks, however, the stylish display, engaging themes, and beautiful materials presented surely make Georgians Revealed worth visiting. When doing so, do not miss Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk, a complimentary garden installation in the Piazza, which is part of the Cityscapes Garden Festival.
Esther van der Hoorn is an MA student at the Courtauld.
Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain is on at the British Library until 11 March 2014.