The making of modern Britain: the Georgian era saw the middle class flaunt a new-found wealth

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The era of growing prosperity is revealed in a show at the British Library

As the royals don’t appear to be planning to celebrate the tercentenary of the arrival of their German ancestors from Hanover in 1714, the British Library has stepped in with a stylish exhibition of their own on the Georgians.

Maybe it is the German origin of their family that has put the current royals off. After all, our present family changed their name to that of the Windsors after the First World War to avoid the connection. Or perhaps it’s simply that the Georges were a relatively undistinguished  lot. George I arrived without a wife because she was in prison back home for planning to elope with her Swedish lover (who was brutally disposed of). George II’s main claim to fame was that he was the last British monarch to lead his troops into battle. George III went mad while his son George IV was a spendthrift and a voluptuary who would put any of the present crop of European royals to shame.

Not that the increasingly scabrous attacks on the Hanoverians through the 18th century sees much light in this. But then the exhibition has little of the sheer rumbustiousness of an age that Hogarth depicted with such vividness in his scenes of drunken debauchery and gambling excess. This was the era when the press turned to celebrity gossip, popular prints took to extreme satire and when violence, on the street at home as on the battlefield abroad, was never far away. Georgians Revealed may be the title of the show but what is displayed here is a highly sanitised version, with barely a mention of the horrors of the slave trade that underpinned its West Indian wealth nor the brutality of its penal system that ensured order at home.

And yet, as this show amply illustrates, the Georges presided over, and were active patrons of, a century of unparalleled elegance and taste. Through a succession of galleries set against walls of social images from the popular prints, the exhibition displays just how cultured as well as internationally powerful the country became through the reigns of the Georges. If the 17th century was the age of the aristocracy and the 19th century the time of the industrial working classes, then the 18th century was the period when the middle classes held sway in terms of taste and consumption.

“Middle Class values” has become something of a dirty, or at least discredited, concept today in the historians search for the underbelly of past privilege. So has the word “taste”. And yet it was what the Georgians aspired to. The exhibition sets out to illustrate just how much we owe to the Georgians for what was best in our inheritance from the past. On the whole, it succeeds.

Architecture is the most obvious case and the exhibition starts with the Adam brothers and John Nash and what they did, not simply to create beautiful buildings for the wealthy but an urban style that brought harmonious  crescents, squares and terraces to the provincial towns as well as London. The British Library reminds us, too, that this was not brought about primarily through the patronage of monarch or court, as it was in most of Europe, but through entrepreneurs and speculative development. The brothers Robert and James Adam nearly went bust building the Adelphi along the Thames. Only a lottery with prizes including some houses in the development saved the project (now sadly partially demolished and well back of the river frontage). The exhibition includes some of the lottery tickets to emphasise it.

Gambling, and drink, were ever the vice of Georgian society, high and low. The war of the American Revolution and the conflicts with France were largely financed by lotteries run by private companies. Stock market speculation famously and scandalously went over the top with the South Sea Bubble at the beginning of the century, raising a tempest of hatred against financiers that makes the recent tirades against bankers look tame by comparison. And the  British Library also shows, from the Barclays Group’s archive (it might stand as a testament for the bank itself), a trunk full of unpaid bills and betting slips left behind by a high-living Scrope Davies, forced to flee abroad like Beau Brummel, to escape his creditors and the debtor’s prison – not a pleasant place as Dickens’ father was to discover to his son’s shame.

In the end a whole era is far too big a subject to be encompassed in a single exhibition. Each of the themes explored here could be the  subject of an entire show in themselves. The British Library’s strength is its holdings of printed materials not items or pictures. Its advantage is that this was the time when the printed book and the periodical came into their own with the first novels, encyclopaedias  as well as majestically illustrated volumes of botanical and scientific studies appearing. It was also the time of the popular print, the playbill, poster and advertisement, all of which are on display here.

They lead you into some wonderful by-ways and concerns of the Georgian mind. On this account they were ever obsessed with manners, not just in terms of politeness but in terms of how sporting fixtures, letter writing, horse riding and leisure activities should be organised. It wasn’t a matter of aping your betters in society, as Oscar Wilde was to parody so mercilessly a century later. It was more that a class coming into its own wanted a comfortable and ordered life for itself.

The exhibition is full of books and periodicals illustrating how they did it. Formal dances came into fashion, as we know from Jane Austen, and there are some splendid prints ridiculing the Englishman’s efforts to achieve grace in movement. Margate’s Theatre Royal, still extant, is used as an example of the theatre, masquerades and entertainments regularly advertised there. The pleasure gardens such as Vauxhall and Ranelagh in Chelsea as well as the less salubrious Bagnigge Wells at King’s Cross, became places of fashionable parade in the day and danger and dissolution in the night. A prosperous man needed not only to be up with the fashion in his clothes and wallpaper, he also needed to be well read and well versed in music and intellectual inquiry.

Not that, on the evidence of this show at least, the English (for it is a show primarily  concerned with the English) seemed that  conscious of Paris fashion of Continental  examples, nor were the Continentals that impressed with British efforts to become  civilised. There is a particularly haughty French cartoon of the British tourists flooding into France after the end of the Napoleonic wars showing a family of a gangling father and poorly dressed mother carrying a mewling baby and leading ill-clothed child into this foreign land. The British responded in kind showing an effeminate France quailing before the healthy appetites of a beef-eating John Bull.

The interesting question is how far the  monarch and the court really played much part in the life of the average Briton. Although we call the era Georgian, and the court was certainly at the pinnacle of society while the monarch retained substantial powers, not least as head of the armed services, the general impression is that the country at large jogged along quite happily without much reference to them, nor any great consciousness of the state as such. The great influences were largely economic: the agricultural revolution which created widespread wealth, the foreign trade and colonies which brought such high returns and the beginnings of the industrial revolution. Britain was prosperous and with that prosperity came the middle-class pursuits on display here.

They may seem sometimes prim and even innocent to us now, but looking at these drawings of the buildings of Bath, the theatres and assembly rooms in so many towns and the charitable works of the new entrepreneurial class, it is difficult not to feel that they did rather better than us in putting a polite face on wealth.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain, British Library, London NW1 (01937 546546) to 11 March

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