There’s so much richness contained in this exhibition that every time I stopped to look at something I was compelled to study it in detail. For instance, as a pair of red men’s shoes caught my eye I then had to read the wonderful fashion ‘magazines’ laid next to them. Or when glancing at a sketch of people dancing I got carried away by the instructions next to it telling me how I should ‘give my hand’ in such situations.
While the objects and sketches and paintings might draw my attention it was the books that really added the context. Such as Le Beau Monde instructing me on the fashions for June 1808 including a rich Indian muslin dress with embroidered border for the lady and dark blue double breasted morning walking coat for the gentleman. And just further on from this a clothier and draper’s order book from 1773-94 is on display with swatches of fabric and notes alongside it adding real context to the fashion process causing me to stop and imagine getting my new dress designed and made in a small shop in Georgian England.
Trade and commerce were also vital elements of the period, as the British Empire expanded and the East India Company’s monopoly over tea, coffee and sugar grew. Shopping became a social pleasure, advertising enticed people to buy new things and cheaper British copies of exotic goods entered the market.
One theme that runs through the whole exhibition is about people knowing how to do what they’re supposed to be doing – how they should dress, how they should dance, how they should speak, or how tea should be taken. It’s like one big Jane Austin novel (and fittingly her writing desk and glasses are on display).
Another theme that kept running through my head was class – its the middle classes that are heavily represented, its their instruction manuals and entertainments and museums and fashions that we see through the books of the time. And while lower classes do appear these are often caricatures such as in The Comforts of Life (1823-8) showing four ugly, badly dressed poor people swigging from bottles of brandy, rum, gin and whiskey, or in the itinerant street sellers in Cries of London (c.1800). There’s no real exploration of what life you and I might have had at the time if we weren’t lucky enough to have been born with a bit of land and an annual income.
In the Victorian period we’re used to portrayals of the poor coming through, Charles Dickens’ novels or Booth’s maps for instance. But I came out of this exhibition with the general feeling that everything was good in the world and there was nothing to worry about other than what I should wear to the next ball. But then, what’s so wrong with that?
Georgian’s Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain
British Library, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB
Until 11 March 2014