The British Library faces a perennial challenge whenever it holds a major exhibition: everyone loves books, but how do you show them off to good effect when they're locked away from touch? Georgians Revealed overcomes the obstacle by filling the gallery with music, paintings, curiosities and gaiety.
We're in the period 1714-1830, a time of decorum and polite society, yet with a free-spirited underbelly largely repressed by the Victorians. The exhibition focuses on the popular culture, celebrity, fashions and leisure of the period — basically, we're browsing the Sunday supplements rather than getting angry at the news section.
This being the British Library, most exhibits draw on the written culture of the period. This perforce biases the exhibition towards the literate middle classes of the time. There's very little material on the homes and lives of the less fortunate. Instead, we can inspect architectural plans by Johns Soane and Nash, notes on gardening, Jeremy Bentham's violin (who knew?) and the writing desk of Jane Austen. It quickly becomes apparent that the written word was instrumental in the big changes of the period: music was controlled through sheet music, opinions were formed through the nascent press, and the first novels pioneered reading as entertainment.
The main sections of the exhibition contain perhaps two hours worth of browsing, well spaced to avoid bottlenecks. But the start and end of the show are the true highlights.
On entering, you pass contemporary portraits of the four Georges (the only real nod to royalty in the exhibition), before entering a corridor of more recent artwork. At first, the lengthy mural appears to be a blown-up illustration from an 18th century periodical, showing caricatures of the middle classes. But if you look closer, you'll notice that the artist has introduced humorous anachronisms, such as a modern burglar alarm, a lady with a 21st century pushchair and a WH Smith banner on the terraces behind the figures.
Then, at the end...just, wow. The final room is carpeted in a giant print of Richard Horwood's 1790s map of London. You've no doubt seen this map before, but when viewed in these proportions it is all-absorbing. The Thames feels so wide we almost pulled out of our step for fear of getting wet feet. And, oh look, there's Londonist Towers, right next to a vinegar factory.
A final treat awaits outside, in the peculiar shape of the Georgeobelisk. This pop-up garden is the weirdest thing to be seen at a library since Peter Venkman got slimed. Its topiary columns represent Georges II through IV, with a bust of number I occupying a surreal perch on the central tower. Sneak inside, and you'll find a hidden putto representing the recently born prince George. Meanwhile, fake plastic sheep graze nonchalantly out front. Such gimcracks, we're assured, were all the rage two centuries ago.
As ever, the exhibition is accompanied by an events programme, including a late opening on 6 December, plus talks by Heston Blumenthal, Lucy Ingles and Dan Cruickshank.
Oh, and here's the trailer.
Georgian London: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain runs at the British Library 8 November 2013 to 11 March 2014. Tickets are £9 or free for under-18s.