Last Thursday I planned a wonderful day out with an old friend from university. She is probably one of the few people I know who shares a similar interest in the same things I do, so whenever I see a potentially interesting exhibition it is usually safe to say that she will be interested in it too! This time we both wanted to go to the British Library’s newest temporary exhibition, Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain, which is running until 11 March 2014.
Georgians Revealed marks the 300th anniversary of the accession of King George I in 1714 and celebrates the Georgian era up until the death of George IV in 1830. During this period England was completely transformed economically, socially and culturally into the country we now recognise today. Although I didn’t think I knew much about the history of Georgian England, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I could relate to and recognise from the consumerist culture we currently live in. The first daily newspapers appeared in 1702 and flourished in the Georgian era, many famous architects, such as John Soane and John Nash reinvented the English buildings we see today (the British Museum, Sir John Soane Museum, the Brighton Pavilion, etc), public museums and art galleries were founded in the eighteenth century, with the British Museum open to the public in 1759, fashion grew in popularity and many recognisable, famous writers, such as Jane Austen and Fanny Burney were alive and producing novels!
However, it was certainly an era of chaos and change; a period of uncertainty which must have been unsettling for the inhabitants of Georgian England. Whilst the lives of the growing middle classes – of merchants and professionals – grew more wealthy, the poorer classes delved further into poverty and despair. The dark underside of Georgian Britain is cleverly dealt with in this exhibition. Although we are shown the wealth that was accumulated by growing trade, we are also reminded of the dark side of consumerism – slavery (which can equally be applied to today’s consumerist world). Although we are shown the new, exciting forms of public entertainment that were open to wider audiences, such as the theatre or public gardens, we are shown the bawdy and scandalous nature these could take. We are reminded that Kings Cross, just down the road from where we are standing, was the site of a prolific red light district. Yet, at the same time, there was a very stringent and particular interest in the politeness of manners within society – the type we would see in a Jane Austen novel.
Following on from this wonderful exhibition, there is also a Georgians Revealed walking tour – the map comes free with the exhibition guide above. I will definitely be visiting some of their suggestions in the near future:
- Foundling Museum – Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital which was established for the ‘education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children’.
- Lincoln’s Inn Fields – one of Georgian London’s finest squares, but also the popular haunt of beggars.
- Sir John Soane’s Museum – also the home of Sir John Soane who became one of the most prominent architects in Georgian London.
- The Hunterian Museum – John and William Hunter were celebrated anatomists during the Georgian era whose pioneering work on animals and humans changed the face of medicine. In 1799, John Hunter’s vast collection was purchased by the government and can be seen at the Hunterian Museum, which is part of the Royal College of Surgeons.
I also bought a couple of interesting books from the British Library Shop concerning Georgian London:
- Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies edited by Hallie Rubenhold – a directory of ladies of the night in Georgian London written by Jack Harris (described as the Pimp-General-of-all-England in the blurb). In the exhibition you could see the original publication which described, in minute detail, descriptions of prostitutes in the Covent Garden area. It was apparently a bestseller and a good ‘guide book’ for any serious gentleman of pleasure. It is so shockingly outrageous that I couldn’t resist buying it!
- The Secret History of Georgian London by Dan Cruickshank – Cruickshank looks at the rifeness of prostitution in Georgian London and how it came to ‘affect almost every aspect of life and culture in the capital’.
I look forward to reading more non-fiction (which is one of my aims for this year) and I love reading anything about the city I am from!