by Keith Flett @kmflett
Government austerity being what it is, it now costs to visit exhibitions [not the Library itself] although nine pounds being roughly the cost of two and half pints of beer in central London is not excessive. The Library has vast archives and collections to draw on for these exhibitions and a team of talented curators so a visit is always worthwhile. There will be exhibits of interest even if you have no particular sympathy for the theme of the exhibition itself.
Personally I thought the scorecards from cricket games at Lords in the 1790s, the case that demonstrated that the Georgian period saw the rise of letter writing as a pastime and the final section which demonstrates how much of the present physical shape of London was dictated by developments between 1714 and 1830 were worth the price of admission on their own. The broader theme of the exhibition I was not so much uncomfortable with in itself as feeling that it might have been better given another name or a sub title.
2013 marked the 50th anniversary of EP Thompson’s landmark volume, The Making of the English Working Class, and the exhibition is really centrally about [although it doesn’t say so] demonstrating, quite rightly, that as the working class was made so was the middle class. The range of themes from architecture to theatre to manners, style and dress and the development of canals is all about the new middle class that was to form the bedrock of nineteenth British capitalism was built.
Again, it doesn’t actually make that point explicit. The exhibition is quite London focused and it would have been interesting to see how the themes it features were played out in Yorkshire or Scotland. I suspect the point is that London led the way, but again that is not absolutely clear.
There was of course a downside to this process- in part that it was Thompson’s book deals with, but it is not one the exhibition pays a great deal of attention to- in fairness there isn’t space. There is mention that much of the wealth that provided the basis of the development of a new middle class came from the slave trade but not much more than that. It is pity that there isn’t space to have some focus on the many middle class radicals who helped to organise the effort to end that trade though.
Above all though the Georgian period in Britain was really one of riot and tumult. Of this we get just a few glimpses in the exhibition. There is mention of the riots in London over gin prices and theatre prices. Unforgivably there is nothing about the successful campaigns, invariably accompanied by riots, of John Wilkes to become an MP and Mayor of London. There is nothing either about the reactionary Gordon riots and the decision to hang those arrested in the central London localities they had come from.
The Georgian period may well have been one in which middle class manners and fashions were developed but it was also one of vicious justice and bloody revenge, part one fears of the same world outlook in some cases.
It is then not so much the exhibition itself but the lack of context in which it is put that is a little troubling. One could see David Cameron, not one suspects the greatest of historians, rather enjoying this exhibition and being untroubled by it.
That surely is not the purpose of history. It is to provoke questions and make people think about the past and the present.
Georgians Revealed. Life, Style & the Making of Modern Britain at the British Library runs until 11 March 2014.
@kmflett writes at kmflett’s blog