This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, with commemorations and debates across Britain’s airwaves and newspaper columns. However, much less attention has been paid to the fact that 2014 is also the three-hundredth anniversary of King George I’s accession to the throne and the beginning of the Georgian era, which lasted until 1837. To its great credit, earlier this year the British Library decided to curate an exhibition on Britain under the four Georges:‘Georgians revealed. Life, style and the making of modern Britain.‘
Its main focus was on the transformative nature of the period. The curators had assembled an array of striking artefacts, which demonstrated the growth of a consumer society and featured many recognisably ‘modern’ attributes. As one would expect of a Library, the emphasis was on printed matters. The Georgians practically invented advertising, as demonstrated by various directories and sheets marketing tea or textiles. They also pioneered the modern concept of ‘fashion’ as a constantly changing phenomenon, fuelled by an army of commentators and gossips. The classical architecture, for which the era is known, was displayed in designs for crescents and Palladian country houses. There were panels on improvement, sociability and innovation.
Allusions to the present abounded, intentionally so. Georgian furniture was represented, not by real Chippendales, but by a sales catalogue whose precision and costs were startling similar to those today. The burgeoning financial sector was explored through the copies of stock certificates, lottery tickets and, of course, cartoons about the catastrophic South Sea Bubble of 1720, which precipitated a financial crisis not unlike that of 2007-2008. As for moral panics, the ‘Gin Craze’ immortalized in Hogarth’s prints, inevitably exhibited here, reminded us of current concerns about illegal narcotics and the like. All that is missing was a section on immigration, which was actually an issue at the time – over the Jew Naturalization Act of 1753 – so the curators missed a trick on that one.
The principal emphasis was on lifestyle and material culture, but every now and again politics broke through. There were original texts of Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ and Tom Paine’s Rights of Man. The interplay between politics and everyday sociability was brilliantly captured by the placing of a copy of William Cowper’s ‘A subject for conversation and reflection at the tea table (1788)’ among an original china service set for tea. The subject in question was slavery, whose horrors were condemned in detail.
There were also, however, huge gaps. Of course, it is impossible to cover everything but many will have expected more on the Georgian’s preoccupation with religion, which affected lifestyles as well, at least through church attendance and associational culture. My main complaint is the neglect of the ‘Hanoverian’ side of the kings, and the European dimension in general. The Georges were, after all, German in origin and their involvement with the continental balance of power was a matter of both approval and controversy among their subjects. During the period, coffee houses of London were abuzz with debate on the Baltic crisis of 1717, of the hiring of German mercenaries in the early 1740s, and whether or not to send British troops to the continent during the Seven Years War, a dispute which the exhibition merely describes as over ‘trade’.
The George’s German connection eventually manifested itself in the various Hanover and Brunswick Squares, Place, Parks, Gardens, and Courts, which we still see today. As well as the many ‘King of Prussia’ pubs, celebrating Frederick the Great as a Protestant hero (there is one not there far away from the Library in Leather Lane).
Equally unfortunate was the relentless London-centricity, which was rounded off with a banner headline quotation of Samuel Johnson’s infamous quip that whoever was tired of the capital was ‘tired of life’. There are a few nods towards the midlands, with prints of a theatre in Birmingham’s New Street, and a map of Britain’s canal network but the exhibition largely stayed within the comfort of London. While there is no doubt that London was hugely important, the Georgian period marked the beginning of an era in which the metropolis lost some ground to the new hubs in Birmingham, and Manchester. The latter I don’t recall being mentioned at all, despite its population having grown to more than 700,000 by the death of George IV. Expecting much greater awareness of this aspect is a matter not of political correctness but historical justice.