Who Were the Georgians?

A ground-breaking exhibition at the British Library marks three hundred years since the Hanoverian succession in 1714. Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain takes a look behind Georgian windows to give us a fascinating glimpse of what life was really like between 1714 and 1830. The term 'Georgian' describes the period in British history from 1714 to 1830 when the country was ruled by George I to George IV, the four Hanoverian monarchs who originated in Germany.   

A Time of Great Excitement

It was a time of great excitement: Britain's cities were growing rapidly, trade was expanding at an even faster rate, and the country experienced a massive boom in consumerism. The exhibition tells us about this most important and exciting period in the cultural development of Britain offering a wealth of information about the daily lives of all classes of society. We see the foundations of 21st century Britain as laid down by our Georgian ancestors.

The exhibition features more than 200 items. Some have been selected from the British Library's own comprehensive holding and others have been lent by numerous public and private collections including the British Museum, the V&A, Northampton Museum, Tate Britain, National Portrait Gallery and many others. Georgians Revealed is curated by Moira Goff with experts from the History and Classics team at the British Library.  

Highlights of the Exhibition

The exhibition showcases iconic artworks and rare artefacts including designs for well-known landmarks and buildings such as Sir John Soane's house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and the Brighton Pavilion. Items on display range from letters and documents, books and early magazines, to sculptures and figurines, tea sets and furnishings.   

An English Family at Tea by Joseph Van Aken

When you visit an exhibition like this there will always be some items that stick in your mind.  An English Family at Tea by Joseph Van Aken (1699-1749, loaned by Tate Britain, told me so much about British society. An English Family at Tea, painted in about 1720, is a group portrait of an unidentified family. Van Aken shows the aspirations of this typical middle-class family. The women sit at the table, acknowledged as their proper place, while the men adopted formal, powerful poses, showing their status in the family. On the floor, in front of the lady in black, we see the container for the precious tea, an expensive commodity in those days. The woman is carefully measuring out the tea and the maid servant stands ready to pour hot water into a small red teapot.  


An English Family at Tea by Joseph Van Aken
Credit: Tate Britain

Entertaining in Georgian Homes - Jeremy Bentham's Violin

The Georgians didn't have radios or television. They entertained themselves with musical soirées, card games, sewing, embroidery, reading and so on. Listening to music was considered 'a tasteful and polite entertainment'.[1]  It was thought to be a suitable accomplishment for women, rather than the menfolk, and many girls played the harpsichord, violin and other instruments. Few men played musical instruments, unless they were professional musicians. Middle-class men feared their status might be compromised if they were associated with professional musicians, so most just enjoyed listening. Even so, despite these conventions, some men did play musical instruments. Jeremy Bentham enjoyed listening to music and playing. His violin, dating from 1769, is on display. 

Jeremy Bentham's Violin
Credit: Museum of London

The Print Revolution

Until 1695 the Licensing Act restricted what, and how much, could be printed. The Act relapsed in 1695 leading to a rapid increase in the freedom of the press and the print industry. Georgians Revealed features many unique documents and fine prints such as Spectators at a Print-Shop in St. Paul's Church Yard (1774) loaned by the British Museum[2].

The print was made by English painter, and mezzotint engraver, John Raphael Smith (1752-1812). It was printed by publisher/printer Carington Bowles (1724 -1793), whose shop this is. In this satirical scene a fashionable, but eccentrically dressed woman, touches a elderly gentleman on the arm as she points out a print in the print-shop window. A second gentleman stands to the right leaning on his stick and staring at the prints. He is accosted by another man with a piece of paper, believed to be a warrant for his arrest.

Spectators at a Print shop in St Paul's Churchyard
Credit: British Museum

Visit the Exhibition

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain will be on how at the British Library until 11th March 2014. The exhibition is accompanied by an exciting programme of public events including talks by celebrated chef Heston Blumenthal and historian and author Lucy Inglis.

George I Tercentenary Celebrations

It is almost 300 years since the first King George came to the throne and the 300th anniversary will be marked throughout the UK during 2014 with exhibitions at Kensington Palace, the Handel House Museum, the Foundling Museum and many other cultural institutions.


More About Georgian Art and Society

If you're looking for more articles about Georgian art and society Design & and the Decorative Arts or Stowe House and Landscape Gardens - Georgian House Restored for the Nation might be of interest.

Visit the British Library

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