As I have already commented elsewhere, the eighteenth century seems to be all the rage right now from exhibitions to books to TV shows. Just yesterday, the BBC announced a major new season across both radio and television Eighteenth Century Britain: Majesty, Music and Mischief. There are also only two weeks left of Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain at the British Library. I visited the show a couple of weeks ago, so now seems high-time for a couple of comments on the blog.
In four broad sections - Homes and Gardens; Shopping and Fashion; Culture and Ideas; Leisure and Pleasure - Georgians Revealed makes an impressive and coherent attempt to tell a thematic story of pleasure and creativity in eighteenth-century Britain, while also giving some chronological sense of change over the period. 'Tourism', for instance, takes you from John Ogilby's 1720 map of British roads to Sir William Hamilton's records of Vesuvius in the 1770s. It also tries to give a sense of varying peoples and places, not the usual homogenous view of a complacent gentry, although the affluent middling sort are inevitably heavily present. We also see the perils of drink for the lower class, and the care of foundlings started by the Foundling Hospital. We see ceramics manufacture in Stoke-on-Trent as well as furniture production in London's St. Martin's Lane.
The exhibition certainly reveals the wonders of the library's collections alongside the pleasures and luxuries of our eighteenth-century forebears. There are some wonderful treasures, of which I, for one, was unaware. My favourites included the tiny Infant's Library from 1800, Edward Gibbon's library card catalogue written on the backs of playing cards, and prints of the earliest Christmas pantomime characters. I was, of course, also made happy by the prevalence of figures from Hogarth prints among the striking composite images used at the backs of cases. The second plate from his Analysis of Beauty even featured in the section on the pleasures of dance. I loved, likewise, how the entry to the exhibition used a progression of reproduced prints and broadsheets hanging from the ceiling to emphasise the eighteenth-century profusion of printing.
So what was my one inevitable gripe? There is barely a mention of science or of the navy and navigation in this consideration of the modern world as made in eighteenth-century Britain. Botanical prints appear as a commodity and hobby in discussions of entertaining at home. Eccentric mechanical inventions appear in the section on trade and fashion. A down-and-out sailor is one of the unfortunate victims of drink in the print warning of its perils. And that, as far as I could tell, is it.
Lucky, then, that (as Richard previously announced) we have Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude coming to the National Maritime Museum in July to reveal how all of this pleasure, style and nation-making relied just as much on knowing where you were at sea, and how that knowledge was also developed out of the life and style of the Georgians.