Posted by Kaylee Peelen, photo credit: Marissa Bolin
On 7 March, three MA students sponsored by the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York caught a train to London to spend the day perusing the British Library’s Georgians Revealed exhibition. Armed with plenty of coffee, empty notebooks, and a dangerously nerdy level of enthusiasm, we were well prepared for this excellent overview of the Georgian era designed both for a public unfamiliar with the time period and for budding scholars ready to pour over the comprehensive display of texts, images, and artifacts.
Three hours in the exhibition allowed us to thoroughly enjoy everything from Hogarth’s “Analysis of Beauty” to a first edition of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. We spent a bit of time discussing whether Jane Austen had a small head, as evidenced by her tiny pair of spectacles, but I was much more interested in comparing the broad, fluid handwriting of Francis Burney’s letters with Austen’s more tightly elegant script. As someone who is unfamiliar with London geography, I was particularly pleased to find an entire room dedicated to an historical map of London helpfully printed on the floor. I can now say I have walked all over eighteenth century London—even though I only walked across the room!
Our trip was inspired by the CECS Representing the City module, which looked at urban life in the Georgian period from a distinctly textual and image-based perspective. I was thrilled to find on exhibit a plethora of familiar engraved prints I had only encountered in digital form. Seeing the full size version of David Garrick as Richard III accompanied by the actor’s own bill of sale gave the image a materiality it lacked on the computer screen. Similarly, when I examined a small trunk filled with handwritten bills abandoned by a young rake who escaped his creditors, I was struck by how poignantly the artifact hinted at the drama behind its owner’s flight even as it drew our focus to easily missed details. Old newspapers had been pasted onto the trunk then painted over, yet not so thickly as to obscure the original texts. By observing with a critical eye, we could apply our background knowledge to access the recycled messages and fossilised stories within the artifacts.
Perhaps that is what made the exhibition so special, beyond its tasteful execution and balanced representation of the Georgian era. To be a student of the times with questions ready to be answered and interest already piqued was to find ample material for exploration and wonder and surprise. To share it with other like-minded and enthusiastic students was an incalculable bonus. We are immensely grateful to the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies for sponsoring the trip and can only hope that future students may also benefit from such opportunities.