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Review: Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain, British Library, 8 November 2013–11 March 2014

by Sarah Sharp, University of Edinburgh

Georgians Revealed 400-25C

The tercentenary of the Hanoverian succession of 1714 has provided the stimulus for an exciting and highly visual exhibition at the British Library, which traces the changes in British culture taking place between 1714 and 1830. Focusing on the daily lives of Georgians, the exhibition charts what British citizens were reading, playing, visiting, attending and buying during the Hanoverian era. As I have been working mostly on the 1820s and 30s this year, the exhibition was at the top of my ‘must-visit’ list during my pre-Christmas trip down to London in November. Joining the throng of researchers outside the British Library at opening time, I was interested to see whether the curators had succeeded in injecting life and colour into a period of history which perhaps seems more remote to the general public than the subsequent Victorian era. Can the Georgians with their wigs and weird spellings engage a modern audience without becoming regency period-drama cliché?

An introduction to the major political events between George I’s succession in 1714 and the death of George IV in 1830 provides a handy refresher on the chronology of the many wars and controversies of the era—helpful when covering a period which is characterised by the fact that all four successive Hanoverian monarchs shared the same first name. This brief synopsis of the events of the period also serves as a reminder of just how tumultuous these 116 years were in British history. The main body of the exhibition then takes visitors on a whistle-stop tour of the cultural life of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain. At their best the displays use books, artifacts, text and electronic media to conjure up the excitement and colour of an emerging consumer economy. The curatorial team’s emphasis is on the ways in which Georgian society laid the foundations for British life today with sections describing coffee culture, shopping, travel, popular entertainment and celebrity. The effect is fun and engaging, and items from the British Library’s collections like Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, when placed in historical context, give a real sense of what life in the streets of a rapidly changing city might have been like.

However, at times it seemed like a better title for the exhibition might have been ‘Middle-class Metropolitan Georgians Revealed’. Despite journeys into theatres, brothels and circuses, questions about daily life in the homes of the lower classes remained largely unanswered. Similarly, although examples from the different regions of Britain were given, the experience that was being described often seemed a metropolitan one. The problem here seems to be a disconnection between title and content. Subtitling an exhibition with a phrase like ‘the making of Modern Britain’ is a fashionable move in the wake of documentaries like Andrew Marr’s 2009 series The Making of Modern Britain, however, in this case the ambitious claims of the title could only partially be fulfilled within the scope of a single exhibition and this sometimes lead to the simplification of issues like religion. One of the best sections of Georgians Revealed used a large map of eighteenth century London printed on a floor to describe the emerging characters of the different areas of the city. Perhaps focusing in on the cultural life of London during the Georgian period, and using it to illustrate wider national trends, would have created a more focused and coherent narrative.

These small peeves aside, I really enjoyed Georgians Revealed. The exhibition was pacy and drew me in as a visitor. The take home point, that Georgian life was far from remote from our own, and in fact laid the foundations for it, came across well without being over emphasised. Beautifully displayed and well-researched, the exhibition gave a glimpse of the British Library’s wealth of Georgian artifacts and the ways in which they might be used to bring history to life. Stepping out into the buzz of central London three hundred years after the coronation of George I, I was acutely aware that, even now, I walked on Georgian streets.

More details about the exhibition are available here.

Sarah Sharp is a second year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh and a research assistant on the New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson. For more information on her work please go to- http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/literatures-languages-cultures/english-literature/postgraduate/phd/student-profiles?person_id=207&cw_xml=profile.php

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