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

Georgians1Georgians 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.

I.R. and G. Cruikshank. 'Tom & Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic' Pierce Egan, Life in London. London, 1823 (British Library. 838.i.2)

I.R. and G. Cruikshank. ‘Tom & Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic’
Pierce Egan, Life in London. London, 1823 (British Library. 838.i.2)

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.

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk

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.

The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure (The Courtauld Gallery)

Research Rhythms contributor Niccola Shearman giving her free lecture at a late opening

Research Rhythms contributor Niccola Shearman giving a free lecture at a Dürer late

The Courtauld’s latest exhibition offers a glimpse into the formative years of an irrefutable giant of the German Renaissance. Centring on Dürer’s so-called Wanderjahre, something akin to an extended gap year, it tracks Dürer’s four-yearlong travels in the Upper Rhineland and possibly also to Italy. But this isn’t a one-man show. Instead, through a collection of rarely-exhibited works on paper, the focus is on Dürer as a product of the artistic influences he encountered as a young man.

Martin Schongauer, A Foolish Virgin, 1478 © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Martin Schongauer, A Foolish Virgin, 1478
© Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Throughout, works by the young artist hang alongside a range of works by elder masters who Dürer came across on his travels, either in person or through their work. Particular (and well-merited) prominence is given to Martin Schongauer, who Dürer never met but greatly admired. His ten engravings showing Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins are enchanting.

At the crux of the exhibition is the Courtauld’s double-sided drawing A Wise Virgin and Dürer’s left leg from two angles. This work – one side beautifully finished, the other hastily sketched – is presented as a symbol of the two strands of the young Dürer’s artistic practice: a new emotional intensity in figure drawing and the sustained scrutiny of his own body. This lively union of experimentation and expressiveness also appears in a sketch of the Virgin and Child, where the artist’s own hands hover above the figures’ heads. In a self-portrait, Dürer seems to probe the limits of his ability with a daring frontal angle and his cheek resting in his palm, while a swiftly executed image of his young wife inscribed with the words “Mein Agnes” offers a rare and intimate snapshot into his domestic life.

Albrecht Dürer Self-portrait (verso) c. 1491-92 © Graphische Sammlung der Universität, Erlangen

Albrecht Dürer
Self-portrait (verso) c. 1491-92
© Graphische Sammlung der Universität, Erlangen

Other drawings, like the Three studies of Dürer’s left hand, are highly finished and elegantly arranged. Such works seem anticipate an audience. This awareness of his viewer, as well as his excellent draughtsmanship, would help Dürer to become the master printmaker for which he achieved lasting fame. The important relationship between drawing and engraving is neatly illustrated by the Prodigal Son print hanging alongside its rare preparatory sketch.

The display in the second room suggests the curators’ conviction that Dürer did cross the Alps into Italy, a matter of on-going debate. Evidence of Dürer using Italian sources appears in an engraving of Philosophy displayed alongside Dürer’s drawn copy. The remarkable Men’s Bath is an example of Dürer’s stunning technical ability in woodcut even at this young age. In comparison, the woodcut from his master’s workshop hanging nearby seems almost course and stiff.

Albrecht Dürer Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94 © Albertina, Vienna

Albrecht Dürer
Three studies of the artist’s left hand (recto), c. 1493-94
© Albertina, Vienna

Though not officially part of the exhibition, a small accompanying display warrants mention. This room recreates a famous lecture delivered by the influential cultural theorist, Aby Warburg, entitled “Dürer and Italian Antiquity” (1905). Tackling the challenge of staging the lecture in exhibition format is commendable, though it has only partial success. Without prior knowledge of the lecture, the cohesion of this room remains somewhat obscure. On display, however, are some of the finest engravings by Italian masters of the early Renaissances alongside some of Dürer’s most exquisite drawings and prints including the Death of Orpheus, Melancholia I and Nemesis. So all scholarly history aside, visually speaking this room is a joy and must not be missed.

The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure is at the Courtauld Gallery until 12th January 2014

Laura Llewellyn is a PhD student at the Courtauld