Last week i was delighted to find myself with an invite to the launch of a new exhibition at No.1 Royal Crescent, Bath, curated by historian Hallie Rubenhold. Without wanting to give away all of its secrets, here is a little sneak preview…
The exhibition inhabits two modest rooms in this lovely Georgian town house (which itself ought to be fully explored) and opens in impressively dramatic fashion, casting light not only on Georgian women but also on popular attitudes towards them through an extraordinary collection of mezzotint portraits. In a nod towards the print shop windows of the Georgian era, the prints range from the bawdy to the (almost) respectable, and place duchesses, demi-reps and half-naked dairymaids side by side. In the eighteenth century, all women trod the fine line between vice and virtue and the slightest slip could be fatal to the feminine reputation – a fact that no doubt fascinated and titillated many a male observer.
For the eighteenth-century enthusiast, some familiar names are bound to be a draw, including the Duchess of Devonshire, Emma Hamilton, and the thigh-flashing, banknote-eating courtesan Kitty Fisher (who died in Bath while still in her twenties). But the great charm of this exhibition is that we are also introduced to women who enchanted Georgian society but are now forgotten, and to pretty but nameless servants who may only have had the opportunity to enchant the man who immortalized them in print.
‘The Housewife’s Employment’, c.1750
More than a little reminiscent of a certain Eurovision entry… Some male tastes never change
Singer & actress Harriet Powell (1770), whose fame has entirely faded
The almost irrepressibly smiley Emma, Lady Hamilton, here depicted as ‘Nature’ (c.1802)
Frances, Countess of Essex (1757)
Accompanying this introduction to the world of eighteenth-century print culture is a scattering of displays exploring various aspects of women’s lives in the Georgian era, including beauty and fashion, leisure activities and household duties. Drawing from the collection of No.1 Royal Crescent and others, for me some of the stand-out objects were a beautiful (and tiny) royal wedding shoe, a wig powder bellows and a miniscule ‘dance programme’ dating to around 1780 – used by a lady wishing to record the gentlemen with whom she intended to dance.
Dance programme, c.1780
But there is much more to see – I heartily recommend that you go and find your own favourites because no pictures can substitute for seeing the objects firsthand. And let’s face it – any exhibition boldly opening with a display outlining the eighteenth-century ‘Gradations of Whores’ is clearly going to be a winner.
Visit the exhibition:
Portrait of a Lady? Ruin & Reputation in the Georgian era
No. 1 Royal Crescent, Bath
16 May – 14 December 2014
[ps. You can also find my books ‘The Georgian Bawdyhouse’ and ‘Mr Darcy’s Guide to Courtship’ in the shop downstairs , just in case you were suddenly overcome with a desire to purchase something. Cough.]