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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering