Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain at the British Library

By Emily Beeson | 03 December 2013

Exhibition review: Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain, British Library, London, until March 11 2014

An image of a painting of various people congregating in a gallery during Georgian times
Tom and Jerry at the Exhibition of Pictures at the Royal Aacademy© The British Library Board
A path of illustrated placards hangs overhead, inviting visitors to follow a visual timeline of the period, past regal oil paintings of aristocracy and the Georgian royals, into the belly of a rich showcase.

An image of a brown wood violin from the Georgian period
Jeremy Bentham’s violin (1769)© Museum of London
This exhibition presents a wonderful collection of cultural artefacts. It documents the varying pursuits of the Georgians, the rise of the middle classes and contrasts in people's lifestyle and leisure; from wealthy philosophers to the everyman occupying cheapest seats of the period’s many theatres.

Increasing literacy levels and the explosion of printing meant that reading was a well-loved past-time, closely linked with philosophy, botany and the arts. The British Library’s collection of grandiose, hand-painted books provides a wonderful insight into the appreciation the Georgians lavished upon the literary.

Miniature children’s books from the Infants Library are a stand-out of the showcase. These hardback, hessian-bound collectibles, filled with wood-cut illustrations, were intended to instruct youngsters on tastes and values which would serve them later in life.

The Georgians were fans of imperial magnificence. Many hand-illustrated books on architecture and interiors depict a stylish fusion of classical Greek and Roman design influence.

Theirs was an era of increasing luxury and aspirational attitudes. With the East India trading company bringing covetable goods from overseas, a decadent period of consumption began.

Fashion mirrored this exploration of new products and possibilities as elaborate fabrics gave way to new styles that were easier to wear. Plain yet elegant muslin frocks are shown on mannequins topped with theatrical paper wigs, demonstrating the height of style during the period.

An image of a painting on a piece of brown parchment showing Georgian high style
Le beau Monde, London (1808)© British Library Board
An insight into the changes affecting the Georgian design world is given by a variety of the library’s fascinating Georgian notebooks and sketchbooks, filled with scrawled ink notes and sample fabrics.

Beautiful publications on politics, music and philosophy explicate that Enlightenment thinking permeated the era. Intellect and morality became synonymous with leisure pursuits for the middle classes, yet the bawdy desire for spectacle had equal weight.

Celebrity and scandal were hugely sought after and, as such, the medium of Pantomime became vastly popular with all members of Georgian society.

Music, dancing, sports, art, theatre and academia; the Georgians were a tasteful bunch who certainly kept busy. An era of aspiration, these people were defined very much by how they chose to spend their time.

The British Library proved to be a great space in which to view books, drawings and manuscripts which narrated the character of the period, including Handel's original manuscript of Messiah.

It ends with a tour of London via an illustrated map covering the floor, providing a tremendous sense of context for the artefacts on display. Visitors are invited to follow the Thames around the room, identifying familiar sites of the historic capital as they appeared to the industrious and fun-loving Georgians.

  • Open 10am-6pm (8pm Tuesday, 5pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday). Admission £5-£10 (free for under-18s). Visit the exhibition online. Follow the library on Twitter @britishlibrary and use the hashtag #BLGeorgians.

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An image of a dark red painting of King George I in profile from Georgian times
Portrait of George I. Georgians Revealed marks the 300th anniversary of George I's accession to the throne© National Portrait Gallery
An image of an annotated painting from Georgian times showing a horse-drawn cart
James Gillray. A cockney and his wife going to Wycombe. London (1805)© British Museum
An image of a painting from Georgian times showing the inside of a decadent hall
John Nash, The Royal Pavilion at Brighton (1827)© British Library Board
An image of a painting from Georgian times showing people around a river and bridge
A view of the first Bridge at Paddington, and the Accommodation Barge going down the Grand Junction Canal to Uxbridge© British Library Board
An image of a painting from Georgian times showing a gathering in a gallery of the era
Van Aken, An English family at Tea. On loan from Tate Britain© Tate Britain
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