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The Original Conspicuous Consumers

In honour of the 300th anniversary of the first King George  acceding to the British throne, the British Library is currently showing an exhibition entitled The Georgians Revealed, Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain. A fascinating exhibit which draws many parallels between Georgian times and the current day, I discovered I have the Georgians to thank for many of my hobbies.  The Georgians were the ones who started the fascination with home and garden design, home magazines, catalog shopping and travel.

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Georgian Britain had lots of wealth thanks to its flourishing trade which lead to the building of new middle-class homes.  The architecture became more classical and uniform in style.  These new homes had little gardens which people could plan and enjoy.  We owned one such Georgian house in St. John’s Wood in London.  We were told the original Georgian owner was a tradesman – a baker who had done well.  St. Johns Wood was built by the Georgians as the first suburb of London.

georgian house

The uniformity of the architecture was intentional.  Architects such as Robert Adams published books as way to entice prospective clients and also impress their fellow professionals.  William Pain published many pocket-sized pattern books on architectural design which made their way to America.  Landscape architects likewise published design books which were influential.  People were copying each other in a major way.

john soane drawing

John Soane’s plans for a manor house
Image: British Library

The East India Company imported luxury goods which found its way into these new homes.  If people couldn’t afford the real thing, British manufacturers started making copies for consumers.  Sort of like Primark, but in reverse.  Oh, the irony.

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There was so much trade and shipping that new docks had to be built. In fact, new bridges were also built to transport stuff around London. There was only one bridge in London (London Bridge built in the 13th century) until the mid-18th Century.  By 1830, there were five bridges across the Thames.

The Georgians loved to shop for all the new things available to them.  Consumer culture was helped along with the publishing of lots of pamphlets and books which showed people what they could buy, and what other people had.  Then as now, displays of wealth only lead to people wanting what they couldn’t afford.  A fascinating tidbit of information – Jane Austen’s aunt Jane Leigh Peirrot was put on trial for shoplifting.

shopping in pall mall

Josiah Wedgewood’s store in Pall Mall

As for interior design, the times they were a-changing.  For example, our current fascination with wallpaper can be traced back to the Georgians because wallpaper was a cheaper alternative to fabric wall hangings which had previously been used.  In another example, with all the entertaining the Georgians liked to do, you needed furniture such as tea tables, card tables, correspondence tables etc.  Of course, with the tables came the chairs, and so on.  Next thing you know, your home is stuffed to the gills with ‘stuff’ as the Victorians soon found out.

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Thomas Chippendale is considered the first designer and tastemaker.  Before Chippendale, there were only carpenters who created furniture.  He was the first craftsman to create a catalog of his designs – The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director – which set the trend for furniture pattern books.  His style was very popular – you can order one of his pieces knowing you had the latest style.  He also became more of a designer who oversaw the work of his craftsman as opposed to being a hands-on cabinet-maker himself.

chairs

Thomas Chippendale’s Catalog

Of course, the middle classes were not content just to look at pattern books.  Visiting the countryside and checking out other people’s home was the start of travel for leisure by the middle classes.  Country homes and gardens, such as Kew Gardens, were fashionable places to visit.  The improved road network helped make visiting places in the British Isles much easier.  Seaside holidays became a regular diversion.

Gillray print

A cockney and his wife going to Wycombe, 1805

This exhibit at the British Library is showing until March 11th.   The exhibit is fairly compact and an easy browse.  I highly recommend it.

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