Thursday, 27 February 2014

What did the Georgians ever do for us?

Georgian town house built in 1785, Well Street, Hackney
Quite a lot as it turns out as a quick romp around the exhibition devoted to this subject shows. This exhibition marks the 300th anniversary of the accession of King George I in 1714. The Georgian age continued under four successive kings of the House of Hanover until it ended with the death of George IV in 1830.

During this period Britain's prosperity grew as a result of success in continental wars, which led to overseas trade improving which in turn encouraged innovative manufacturing methods and before you know it the industrial revolution was under way and we were on our way to becoming a world power.

The context for the exhibition is set in the first gallery with portraits of the four monarchs looking well fed and rather self-satisfied displayed at regular intervals and interspersed with key dates and descriptions of battles won and laws passed, etc.

Not surprisingly this exhibition concentrates on the positive aspects of Georgian life and pretty much ignores the squalour associated with this period. It's quite obvious from reading Life at Grasmere that begging was commonplace and times were often hard for people. Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital, which opened in 1741 because so many mothers had no choice but to abandon their children, is only mentioned on the back of the exhibition notes as part of an interesting walking tour of London. Edinburgh, Cheltenham and Bath, all famous Georgian cities do get a mention but most of the attention is on our capital city, London.

Enough of the grumbling. I didn't realise that the urban life I enjoy today has been largely influenced by this period. Public parks that I use regularly were being laid out and a great many of the streets had already been mapped out (the area I live in Hackney was still countryside at this stage). One of the most interesting galleries consists of a blown-up street map of London covering the floor which quite a few visitors, including myself, were engrossed in walking over and scrutinising the road names. It was odd to see Trafalgar Square missing and that's because that great battle hadn't happened then.

So, the Georgians were responsible for creating celebrity culture, the rise of the middle classes who quickly learned to enjoy shopping, furnishing their homes with luxury items and planning their gardens. The fashion industry was born during this period as was the design and advertising industry which I have worked in for several decades. The down side to all this consumerism was that the production of a lot of it depended on slavery which was not abolished until 1807 and in some areas of the world continues to this day.

One of the most enduring legacies of this period was in the design of houses and public buildings. Georgian houses even now command a hefty premium because of their elegance, proportions of their rooms, restrained use of embellishments and the assumptions these make about the owners sophisticated taste and lifestyle. In honour of today's post I went to Well Street earlier and did a sketch of my nearest Georgian town house which used to be a hotel and is now a hostel. For all that it has undergone much remodelling you can still see the typical Georgian features that characterise the architecture of this influential era.

Georgians revealed: Life, style and the making of modern Britain at the British Library until 14 March 2014

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