Exploring the underbelly of taste and privilege

By Adrian Hamilton

Tom and Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic by I.R. and G. Cruickshank, 1823. Photo / British Library
Tom and Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic by I.R. and G. Cruickshank, 1823. Photo / British Library

As the British royals don't appear to be planning to celebrate the 300th centenary 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, the family changed their name to that of the Windsors after World War I 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 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 exhibition. But then it 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 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. 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 when the middle classes held sway in terms of taste and consumption.

Middle class values have become something of a discredited concept today in the historian's 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, and 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. This was not brought about primarily through the patronage of monarch or court, as it was in most of Europe, but through entrepreneurs and speculation.

The British Library's strength is its holdings of printed materials. Its advantage is that this was the time when the printed book and the periodical came into their own with the first novels, encyclopaedias and majestically illustrated volumes of botanical and scientific studies appearing. Exhibits lead you into wonderful by-ways of the Georgian mind. It wasn't a matter of aping your betters in society, as Oscar Wilde was to parody. It was more that a class coming into its own wanted a comfortable and ordered life for itself and the exhibition is full of books and periodicals illustrating how they did it.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain, British Library, London, to March 11

- Independent

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