Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Georgians Revealed, British Library

It's a rich time for Londoners interested in the 18th century. This the final month of the British Library's Georgians Revealed exhibition, a stylish show that stresses the influential cultural development of the period. As it happens we are not far from a new exhibition just down the road at the Foundling Museum which covers some of the same territory.

Indeed, the Foundling Museum, though tucked away in a self-contained corner of the British Library's (uncomfortably overly-air conditioned) space is representative of the art that literally jumps off the walls. Hogarth sold his prints to raise money for the children who could not be kept by their mothers; the entire exhibition is wrapped in a period-to-present montage in his familiar cross-hatched style. It is to the exhibition's credit that, in addition, we are not assaulted by piped Handel as well, though the patronage and success the composer enjoyed throughout the reign of all four Kings George would have warranted it.

If the rise of the middle class, the availability of education (largely through printing, not to mention a fresh focus on childhood) mirrors the social change at the start of this millennium, the Georgians also had their fair share of financial woes too - though John Soane's design for the Bank of England was, happily, not one of them.

Instead, spending power coupled to a wide obsession with social comportment meant that the seeds of Empire building were being sown and nurtured. At the end of the period, disposable cash and the end of cross-channel hostilities meant that travel to Europe and beyond was viable (if mocked in a particularly funny French cartoon). The example of a monarchy with German ties and goods imported increasingly cheaply from further afield had dribbled down to the moneyed middle class. They went in search of their own dynastic horizons abroad.

The Georgian period also midwifed Joshua Reynolds' Royal Academy and Samuel Johnson's Dictionary. We were sure that there was more to be had that just couldn't quite be accomodated though. To tie up our visit we left the exhibiton and popped upstairs to the John Ritblat rooms. There, in the music cases on public display is a selection of three artefacts associated with composer Joseph Haydn's visit to London in the late 1790s. In addition to a letter there is a manuscript copy of his 96nd Symphony (the Miracle, so-called as it commemorates an apocryphal account of an audience member narrowly avoiding death by chandelier) and a contract. This wonderful document, signed on his behalf, details the remuneration for 55 works to be provided over a 5 year period for the sum of just over £900. A considerable sum in 1796, when the document is dated it also gives an indication of the esteem in which the leading composer of the day would have been held.

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