This new exhibition at the British Library claims to reveal the very essence of Georgian life and its role in sowing the seeds for the urban and consumer-driven lifestyle of modern Britain. It is an excitingly ambitious exhibition covering 116 years of British history under the rule of four Hanoverian kings. This show, we are told, is an exploration of the "economic, social and cultural changes" in Britain from 1714 to 1830. It is also somewhat of a blockbuster exhibition, and on entering the British Library it seems a great deal of investment has gone into promoting it. However, despite this hype, it genuinely doesn't disappoint. The structuring of the exhibition's subject, its use of the space and the eclectic mixture of objects successfully deliver the show's narrative.
The entrance displays a creative twist on 18th- and 19th-century print shop culture with a collage of reproduced prints, newspaper clippings and key dates and events suspended from the ceiling. Beneath this, the visitor is introduced to the Georgians through painted portraits of the four reigning kings and their brief corresponding biographies. There is also a particularly nice tribute marking the beginning of the Georgian period in the form of the portrait of King George I from 1714 (on loan from the National Portrait Gallery). It is attributed to the studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller, the leading portrait painter of the previous century who died nine years into the new king's reign. It does not go unnoticed that this first portrait was painted by an artist very prevalent throughout Stuart England, thus forming a subtle bridge between the old and new.
In the main body of the exhibition space there are three core themes, which break down the subject of life in Georgian England: public and private spaces, buying into luxury and style, and social pleasures and the virtue of culture. Throughout these themes the contemporary concept of politeness and taste act as a constant link, often being used to contrast class differences in various spaces, pastimes, and commodities.
What is most admirable about the curation of this exhibition is how unified it is and how well it flows from display to display, considering the many sub-topics are featured within each theme. Throughout the whole exhibition, the visitor is taken through topics including architecture and interior design, social activities, the East India Company and consumer objects, and Georgian public entertainments, to name a few. It really is a thorough tour through the Georgian world, yet it is not overwhelming.
There are so many wonderful pieces on show here, which clearly demonstrate cultural and social themes still prevalent today, such as the culture of tea. This is represented by a mahogany tea table, 1730–35, adorned with contemporary porcelain teapot, cup and saucer, all loaned by the V&A. Alongside this is a genre painting by Joseph Van Aken entitled An English Family at Tea (1720) and contemporary texts on the "tea-table". This display alone epitomises what is so effective about this exhibition, which is that the objects, texts, and images are extremely complementary, and their careful placement creates a sense of unity. Through this, the exhibition produces a multi-dimensional experience of Georgian life, whereby the visitor can engage with the displays on a deeper or more superficial level with equal satisfaction. Other no doubt popular objects include dainty shoes, Wedgwood pieces, and rarely-seen magnificent illustrated books.
There is also the opportunity for visitors to form connections between Georgian times and the modern day. Indeed, several of the displays reflect concerns, interests and activities enjoyed now as much as in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as charitable giving, theatre-going, sporting events and even celebrity culture. We are also encouraged to continue our exploration of Georgian England outside of the exhibition with a map of local sites and museums relevant to the era on the reverse of the exhibition guide.
This is an enriching and informative display of our social, cultural and economic heritage. It is also a wonderful example of the importance of libraries, museums and archives in preserving this heritage and bringing these different types of collections together to be re-exhibited in new ways. Perhaps most of all, it is a reminder of the vibrancy of Britain –the thirst for fashion and design, advancement in industry and the engagement in social and cultural activities. This may all stem from the Georgians but as this exhibition demonstrates, it is also very much entrenched in the lifestyle of modern Britain.