Georgians revealed: new show at the British Library

Georgians were the first shopaholics. Visit a new show at the British Library
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Georgians Revealed: Life, Style, and the Making of Modern Britain, runs until March 11, 2014 at the British Library. Full details at

Buying whatever you want for your home, from shops, catalogues or online, seems a modern delight. But it isn't. The roots of our consumer heaven, particularly in interior design and homewares, were laid down 300 years ago, during Britain's biggest economic boom, a time of heady industrial growth and international trade under four consecutive kings called George. Those decades might be called the Gorgeous Georgians, as an absorbing new exhibition at the British Library, with more than 200 exhibits, shows.

From 1714 to 1830, a George was on the throne. During this period of relative stability and huge economic prosperity, London changed from a murky, cut-throat place into the embryonic city we know today. Slowly, its muddy pavements were raised and paved, the streets were lit, and shops sprang up along most major roads — Oxford Street, Piccadilly, and Kensington High Street all developed at this time. Shop after shop glittered with big, plate-glass windows to show off price-ticketed wares inside, tempting the newly monied middle class. These dazzling emporiums did a roaring trade in fabric for clothing and furnishings, or china and porcelain from the East Indies for tea parties and dinners, from Josiah Wedgwood's big new Pall Mall store.


Mail order is born: Illustration from Thomas Chippendale's catalogue of 1754

Production of homewares rose to meet insatiable demand. The manufacture of wallpaper — new, affordable and changeable, replacing costly silk hangings and tapestries — increased tenfold during the 18th century, while furniture began to be made to order from pattern books issued by the likes of Thomas Chippendale. For the first time the aspiring middle classes, accounting for a third of the population, could afford to improve their homes and clothing, and emulate the upper classes with whom they were at last able to mix at assemblies and dances. Britain, and particularly London, became socially mobile. Commoners could — and did — marry into the aristocracy. Through lavishly illustrated books and newspapers, Londoners fed their appetite to improve and decorate home, garden and appearance.

Catalogue shopping caught on fast. Chippendale's The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director of 1754 was one of the first. Wedgwood published one as well. The motto of this newly modern world was that if you wanted it, you could have it.

To capture the spirit, the British Library shop is selling well-chosen, good-quality, Georgian-inspired items including a cushion with an 18th-century print of Kew Gardens for £20, a printed porcelain mug for £10, and a glass scent bottle at a bargain £8.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style, and the Making of Modern Britain, runs until March 11, 2014 at the British Library. Full details at


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