Georgians Revealed – a contemporary view of modernity

By | Art & Design
Tom and Jerry at the Exhibition of Pictures at the Royal Academy © The British Library Board

The Georgian era (1714 -1830) is the protagonist of the show that opened last week at the British Library with title “Georgians Revealed: Life, style and the making of Modern Britain”.

As the title confirms, the exhibition reveals some of the unseen treasures of the Georgian period mostly held by the British library itself and few borrowed from other institutions such as Tate Britain, The museum of London and Northampton Museum and Art Gallery. Providing a reading of what is conventionally known as the Georgian period in England, the exhibition pictures the early modern age through middle class lifestyle, popular culture, fashion design and architecture. It is organized according to four sections: homes and gardens, shopping and fashion, culture and ideas and leisure and pleasure.

Considering the subject we would expect a historical perspective to be predominant. On the contrary, although the show begins presenting – through text and even an installation of panels hanging from the ceiling – the major figures and historical events of the time we are soon introduced to a very different kind of show. After the historical kick off we are driven to discover architecture, landscape design and furniture design of the Georgian period through the aid of drawings and books.

Fanny Burney Cecilia. 3rd-ed. London 1783 © British Library Board

Fanny Burney Cecilia. 3rd-ed. London 1783 © British Library Board

Treatises and publications inspired by Palladio’s “Five books of architecture”, the neoclassical cult for antiques and the interest in drawings of classical buildings, including the Grand Tour experience, are presented along with publications about natural history, botany, landscape and garden design. They illustrate how the written word had taken over and favoured the emergence of different disciplines and expertise.

Alongside this well-known transformation in the production of knowledge, popular and especially middle class culture is presented with the same accuracy. The emergence of fashion design and its promotion through magazines (for instance “The Gallery of Fashion” published by Nicolaus Heideloff is on display) is treated similarly to the former versions of pattern books for buildings such as William Pain’s book “British Palladio”.

Thus the design of the bank of England by John Soane is followed by the rise of gambling and the lottery. The cult of the encyclopaedia goes hand in hand with children’s books such as the “Infant’s Library” published by John Marshall, and novels or “reading for pleasure” syncretize with publications about conversation etiquette very popular in the bourgeois society.

William Heath Grimaldi’s leap frog © British Library Board

William Heath Grimaldi’s leap frog © British Library Board

With the same impeccable research spirit prints, ads, drawings and books illustrate the rise of a modern industry of leisure from dancing to pantomime, masquerades and board games (playing cards and goose game displayed). In addition the exhibition gives space to a variety of topics like scandals and gossip, urban renovations, the rise of institutions (and building typologies) like hospitals and schools and even the first charities and philanthropic enterprises. The show ends with a room dedicated to different London areas and a famous quote from Samuel Johnson (“..when a man is tired of London..”). The celebration of the city and urban life as the core of modern life is maybe a little too obvious conclusion for the show.

The library seems the most appropriate institution for this exhibition which reveals how the diffusion of press and printed images into any aspect of everyday life is an appropriate key to uncover early modern culture. From leaflet to tickets, from adverts to novels and magazines we are offered a complete “buffet” of captivating readings and images to look through. Nevertheless the presence of other everyday objects such as furniture and garments – from a tea table to menswear and ballet shoes – captivates the visitor’s eye and completes the printed collections.

The scope of the exhibition apart from showcasing some of the treasures of the institution, seems to be the attempt to re-curate, even if in a synthetic version the first steps of the history of early modern times enhancing the value of these printed sources. Its main merit is probably to integrate some of the already-told stories with less-known ones belonging to popular culture and everyday life.

In addition to the exhibition, a Georgian garden installation signed by architect and historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan and garden festival Cityscapes will welcome the public or the “urban crowd” in the library piazza. Also a series of “Georgian events” will support the exhibition. To know more about these events and for visitors information see:

How does the exhibition challenge the public? In which ways does it make people look at modern culture differently?


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