Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain, The British Library, 8 November 2013 – 11 March 2014

The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London’s Golden Age, Vic Gatrell, Allen Lane, 2013, 512pp, £25, (hardback)

Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832, Antonia Fraser, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2013, 336pp, £20, (hardback)

One sleepy Saturday afternoon last May I took a call from the alumni office of a former college of mine at Oxford. The friendly young woman, obviously after some money, was keen to tell me all about the dig that was going on near the library. Had I heard about the latest find, she wondered? I hadn’t. Some bodies had turned up among the remains of an ancient hospital and they dated from the time of John the Baptist. ‘Are you sure you mean that?’ I asked, wanting to throw out a lifeline of some sort. ‘Well, that’s what I’ve been told!’ she replied with an unnerving enthusiasm. ‘You’re not reading theology, are you?’ ‘No,’ she said without a pause, ‘I’m doing history!’

The mental image of Michael Gove is enough to dispel any lurking temptation to indulge in invective on current ignorance about the past and, in any case, funny stories of fuzzy confusion support pretty superficial conclusions about it. Nevertheless, if the details of any period of British history can truly be said to have vanished from public view then that period is surely the long eighteenth century from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the Great Reform Act of 1832. The latter is the subject of an approachable and human study by Antonia Fraser, which aims both to provide the background to this most significant of British political events and also to people it with figures whom she clearly admires deeply, both the progressive Whig grandees and the bright, young outsiders whose careers they fostered. One such was Lord Macaulay, later the most significant of the Whig historians. Looking back on the previous century in 1848, he announced with extraordinary confidence that the present prosperity enjoyed by the British, unmatched in ‘the annals of human affairs,’ sprang directly out of the events of 1688, when the country threw off ‘a state of ignominious vassalage’ under a Catholic monarch in thrall to France, and went on quickly to ‘found an empire not less splendid and more durable than that of Alexander.’ I suspect that this date means very little to most people now and that surely is also true of 1707, when the Acts of Union brought about the very country that was so soon to have its empire. If this changes as we move closer to the referendum on Scottish independence then it is unlikely to do much to improve the reputation of the period. The mightiest creations of the eighteenth century in our archipelago – Great Britain and the British Empire – are also the legacies that so many of its inhabitants are now taught to view with the greatest suspicion.

Good luck then to the British Library, whose celebration of the culture of Georgian Britain begins with a slightly half-hearted appeal to another date, 1714, the tercentenary of George I’s accession to the throne as the first beneficiary of the Hanoverian succession. The ostensible sweep of the exhibition takes us all the way up to the death of George IV, by which time the divisive campaign for Catholic emancipation had been successful and the political air was full of the talk of reform. There is a lot to praise in this exhibition, which draws heavily from the holdings of the British Library and British Museum to present us with a marvellous collection of artifacts from the period. Perhaps inevitably given the location it is rather London-centric and, although viewers are immediately confronted by something of a rogues’ gallery of our former monarchs in the small antechamber to the exhibition space, the focus is certainly on the last half century with very few items from before 1760 (the death of George II). There is a list of key dates here too: the two Jacobite rebellions, the various coronations and key battles, the abolition of slavery, and the union with Ireland. It would, however, take some imagination to link these with what is actually on show. The real business of the exhibition is to shed light on the lifestyles of the emerging middle class in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Amanda Goodrich, in her spirited introduction to the accompanying catalogue, insists that the exhibition celebrates Georgians ‘of all levels of society’ and she goes some way to redressing an imbalance in the account of the period that visitors might well take away. It would fairly easy to assume from this display that the British citizenry of the time was largely made up of rather progressive, settled and secular consumerists, utterly besotted with novel forms of entertainment. She reminds her readers not only that was this a period of illiberal politics, dominated by the aristocracy, but also that it was a deeply religious century with the old regime firmly in place.

It would take gross pomposity to object that the visitor to this exhibition learns nothing about the legacy of the Nonjurors in the eighteenth century, nor what the Dissenters dissented from. In some ways, it would be rather to miss the point to say that the compelling unfamiliarity of the eighteenth century, with its fine stratifications of class, diseased coarseness, obscure learning, religious conservatism, geographical remoteness and regional differences emerges here only if one circumvents the dominant narrative offered up about this society, which in a characteristically inane review, Alastair Sooke sums up as one obsessed like our own times with celebrity and shopping. ‘Doing history,’ involves making it work in terms of the present, I suppose, and historians from Macaulay to the Marxists have of course always done this to some extent. Macaulay’s eighteenth century was plotted on a teleological path of progress to his own day, and he disapproved of the elements that didn’t conform to this. Modern popular history, however, seems unable to resist either reducing the past to periods of incredible barbarity and privation, almost unimaginable to sophisticated modernity, or deciding that it is in fact a near facsimile of the present, full to the brim with sparkling resonances that speak directly to our own concerns. It might occur to anyone who is determined to identify the Georgian iPad here, a fancy gadget to show off in newly fashionable Mayfair, that this was also a society prepared, as late as 1783, to string offenders up publicly at Tyburn, only a very short walk away across Hyde Park.

James Gillray,
A cockney and his wife going to Wycombe,
London, 1805
Tom and Jerry at the Exhibition of Pictures at the Royal Academy
© British Museum
© The British Library Board
Augustus Charles Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson,
A Bird’s Eye View of Covent Garden Market,
London, 1811
Thomas Rowlandson,
A Bird’s Eye View of Smithfield Market,
London, 1811
© The British Library

There is a lot in this exhibition about taking tea and tailoring, or games playing and garden design; some time, though rather less, is devoted to what J. H. Plumb once described as the ‘historical records of Georgian society’ caught in ‘the brutal squibs of Rowlandson and Gillray.’ The ambition present in its very title unsettles it somewhat. As a display of material culture from the Romantic period, it is outstanding, but the historical sweep makes for some problems. The old term Georgian, much loved by unscrupulous estate agents and antique dealers, is now rather vague when applied to the culture of this whole period. Moreover, there is a subtly Whiggish account at work. It is one that implies populism and reform, with the aristocracy and bourgeoisie existing in polite harmony. Early on, we are introduced to the architecture of Robert Adam, John Soane and John Nash, but it is very much with a view to suggesting that their grand projects, public and private, filtered through in ethos to the taste of the emerging middle class. It is very much the stylistic taste of that middle class that is on show here and yet some of the best items demonstrate the ways in which its genesis was uncomfortable.

Towards the end of the exhibition, there is a send-up of a young Cockney couple on a trip to the country in an engraving by James Gillray of 1805. Judging from the ill-fed nag pulling the chaise into which the two are stuffed, they are not especially well to do though the wife bulges enormously in finery that is barely stretched over her broad girth. Their particular struggle to enjoy one of the recent pleasures of relative affluence is caught in the quixotic expression of the husband, who drives defiantly along the turnpike towards West Wycombe, a London tourist in search of rural life, with his long whip shaping over the scene in an extravagant Shandean twirl. The image is striking and well chosen in an exhibition that intends to show how this period was fundamental to the ‘Making of Modern Britain.’ Gillray satirizes an aspect of what we would now consider the Romantic urge of the British in this period to leave the city, the place of modern commercial gain and technological advancement, and find the countryside, the site of hard-won leisure and profound aesthetic contemplation. His couple, of course, enjoys neither leisure nor the rewards of serious aesthetic reflection, which is in any case, Gillray seems to suggest, probably beyond them. They are, in a sense, nothing more than victims of a fashion for the sublime, which had its origins in an educated aristocratic culture very remote from them.

As one might expect, there is a particularly rich section devoted to the theatre, one of the chief sites of entertainment for the middle class. Along with playbills, images of auditoriums and accounts of fire, that ever-present danger, there is a welcome sequence of engravings from John Boydell’s Shakespeare gallery. Intended to immortalize the plays for a newly wealthy audience on both sides of the channel with high quality images taken from paintings by academicians, the project resulted in bankruptcy once war broke out in the 1790s. New technology may have made cultural products available to a wider audience with new money but it also brought an inevitable sniffiness from those with true aristocratic connections. Joshua Reynolds, who ultimately contributed two paintings, initially complained that he would be degrading himself to paint for a mere engraver. The transition from an old order of aristocratic patronage to a new art world sustained by the aspiring taste of the middle class is fundamental to the aesthetic history of this time, and it lies at the heart of Vic Gatrell’s magnificent volume, The First Bohemians.

The compelling image that he sets before us at the start is one employed to excellent effect at the British Library: Rowlandson and Pugin’s Bird’s Eye View of Covent Garden (1811), hung there next to an equally evocative image of Smithfield. The juxtaposition of the young Pugin alongside Rowlandson is itself intriguing and offers up an alluring analogy to the character of the time. Pugin’s urban space is ordered into fastidiously correct architectural perspective and contrasts with the disordered chaos of bartering and hustling that Rowlandson captures so marvellously. Gatrell’s book is in two rather different parts but both ask the same insistent question about how the character of London itself affected the development of British art between Hogarth and Turner. He begins with a minute and expertly drawn cultural history of Covent Garden, paying attention to the gradual development of the area over the two centuries from the 1630s during which time it gave temporary or more permanent home to almost all the significant artistic figures of the time. Gatrell’s range of reference is remarkable and this ensures that the lively evocation of the area animated by Boitard, Collet, Defoe, Fielding, Gay, Johnson, Morland, Ruskin and Sandby is much more than the now rather familiar tale of bawdy, gin-soaked London low-life. He is, however, eager to detail the extent to which artists lived in proximity to a world that was very far removed from the order of polite eighteenth-century society. In the middle of a century that saw the city’s population grow from five hundred thousand to one million, there were as many as three thousand deaths per annum from venereal disease alone. The piazza, the theatre, the tavern and the bagnio are the spaces that Gatrell recreates and he does so with help from the greatest heroes of his narrative – Hogarth and Rowlandson.

It is to the artists themselves that Gatrell turns in the second half of the volume as he charts into the age of Turner the gradual transformation of artistic London. Many of the images examined will be familiar but the analyses, as for instance in a detailed account of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, remain penetrating. There is much that will surely be unfamiliar too, in particular the recreation of the very male world of drinking clubs, procured sex and pornography. His overarching thesis, that this was the first Bohemia, regarded in retrospect by Victorians as a necessary stage in cultural development that had been left behind, owes something to Macaulay whose description of the eighteenth-century ‘Poet’ is a locus classicus for the starving artist tout court: ‘All that is squalid and miserable might now be summed up in the one word – Poet […] Sometimes blazing in gold-laced hats and waistcoats; sometimes lying in bed because their coats had gone to pieces or wearing paper cravats because their linen was in pawn; sometimes drinking in Champagne and Tokay with Betty Careless; sometimes standing at the window of an eating-house in Porridge Island, to snuff up the scent of what they could not afford to taste; they knew luxury – they knew beggary – but they never knew comfort.’ In some respects, much had changed by the Romantic period. For all that Hogarth was an aesthetic hero to William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, they disparaged the immorality of the world that had generated Defoe’s Moll Flanders. Macaulay’s image of the artist, generalized from his description of Richard Savage into an entire condition of being, is quintessentially Romantic however, and it sustains still.

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