Wednesday, December 1, 2010

At Home with the Georgians

My friend Hannah alerted me to this, we're both a pair of decorative art/domestic interior boffins, so naturally we got excited over this.

Look at that sassy historian!

The BBC is airing three-part series based on Amanda Vickery's book Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, a fascinating, juicy nugget of a book I urge you to read. It's a through the keyhole exploration of Georgian society, 'behind closed doors'. Your home was a stage, where your taste and respectability was on display to your visitors. Day to day life was an acting out of 'polite society', taking tea with your visitors was a formal practice, an opportunity to show off your new hat straight from Paris, as well as your impeccable taste in domestic furnishings. Her book is compelling and a vivacious read as she discusses relations between man and wife, wife and her guests, the women's role in the home, the life of maids, lodgers, etc. Herein began the rise of consumer culture. "Sex, scandal and soft furnishings" as the BBC calls it.

I'll give you a brief and by no means comprehensive background on this period (you'll have to watch the series or read the book, for the 'tell all' reveal on the workings of Georgian society!)
The popular English portrait artist, Arthur Devis (1712–1787), painted a number of wealthy patrons in their tasteful and up-to-date Georgian interiors, notice how the domestic objects are as central to the portrait as the two figures. These paintings were to demonstrate the fashionability and taste of the patrons.

Mr. and Mrs. Richard Bull, c. 1750, Arthur Devis
The prominent persian carpet tells us that this couple is wealthy enough to afford luxurious imported carpets and also note the tea table, probably made from imported mahogany, also a luxury item and the (probably) porcelain set out on the mantelpiece, in full view for the viewer and the visitor. The practice of taking tea (with visitors) was central to the notion of sociability and polite society at this time and also a reminder of the persons wealth (tea at this time was very much a luxury item).

Mr and Mrs Atherton, c. 1740s, Arthur Devis

The TV series is called At Home with the Georgians and Vickery herself, I'm pleased to say, will be presenting the series. It follows on after the success of her BBC4 radio series 'A History of Private Life', that aired last autumn, but alas I did not have the opportunity to listen to it, if anyone could point me in the direction of where to find it I would be most obliged.

The TV series begins tomorrow night on BBC2 at 9pm GMT, I myself will be frantically finishing essays, so will catch up on iplayer next week.

The Dinner-Locust or the Advantages of a Keen Scent 1826, printed etching and aquatint. Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington.

Some other related articles that might be of interest -
Making a Reading Table on Pegs and 'Tails
The book 'Behind Closed Doors' on Austen only

And with that I have to promise myself not to procrastinate for the rest of the day so I can get this essay finished and out of my way! Enjoy!


  1. I'm so glad you posted this or I might have missed it!

  2. You were one of the people I had in mind when I posted this! Pleasure to be of service :)

  3. this sounds so interesting - think i will have to check it out x

  4. This looks awesome. I took a class on Jane Austen in the spring, and our teacher told us a lot of day-to-day things that I wouldn't have known about Georgian culture. For example, did you know that after dinner the men and women went into different rooms, where there were chamberpots behind a curtain, and people could use them after dinner? I can't imagine using a chamberpot at a formal dinner in front of people...but these are also people who used sticks to clean their teeth.

  5. Oh Colleen I didn't know that about the chamber pots! I didn't really care for the Georgian period until I started learning about the social nuances of the time and how they are communicated through art and the interior!

  6. Oh, I hope I'll get the chance to see it here in Sweden.

    Found your blog when I was looking for something... can't remember what it was right now, but it probably had to do with art. Arthur Devis maybe.

    Nice blog. :-)

    1. Ah thank you! I hope you found what you were looking for?