If you walk past the Sir John Soane Museum in Holborn in the evenings, you’ll see a series of geometric patterns projected onto the museum, and if you go inside, you can learn about how the Georgians did similar if grander things in their time.

The Georgians loved their grand light displays and would often put on hugely expensive festivals of light, often for the public as much as for private entertainment. Even today, an impressive light display can wow the audience, but in Georgian times, these were the space age of their time.

The most famous light displays were the ones organised by, and for, the super rich, the nobility and their hangers-on, but the displays that most people saw were no less exciting, as buildings would fill their windows with decorative screens and light them up from within.

Two very rare survivors of those window displays have been installed in the museum in a dark room, and as you step inside, the backlights switch on for a moment to show just how impressive these decorations could be. The two on display are from a set of four that were painted onto fine linen and then coated in wax to create transparencies that could be hung inside a window and lit from behind.

Imagine the sight of whole streets glowing with candles on the outside of buildings and these artworks glowing from within. It would have looked spectacular.

In a way, the Georgian idea of lighting up building windows for displays is making a bit of a return, with increasing Advent Window displays over winter. And of course, shop windows at Christmas are often when the shops put in the most effort to make us feel festive and hopefully spendthrift.

Back to Georgian times though, and the museum has also brought out examples of the grander sorts of illuminations enjoyed by the nobility, with many architectural drawings of the set designs that would fill a country mansion garden for just one night of revels.

These were far more elaborate than the street illuminations and thanks to the surviving drawings, are much better known, but I can’t help feeling that the street illuminations would have been far more fun to visit.

Later in Victorian times, the pleasure gardens offered a bit of a middle ground, with impressive illuminations, if you were willing to pay to visit them.

The exhibition in the museum about the illuminations shows off the wide range of displays that were created, many for important national events, which back then generally meant the birth of a future King or the defeat of a hated enemy. And if you were particularly rich, they’d include fireworks as well.

As an exhibition about displays of lighting, thanks to the surviving drawings, it’s almost more an exhibition of fanciful architecture, as the stages that were built were impressive to impress the rich patrons paying for them.

So you can look at it as a theatre exhibition as much as one to learn about how the Georgians celebrated by lighting up their towns.

Personally, I think it’d be rather nice to bring back the tradition – a weekend where people fill front windows with coloured illustrations and people wander their neighbourhood admiring the displays.

Before that happens, get inspiration by visiting the exhibition Georgian Illuminations at Sir John Soane’s Museum before 7th January 2024.

It’s free to visit and open Wed-Sun from 10am to 5pm.

Last admission to the museum is 4:30pm so if you were to visit at around 4pm, then you’ll be able to leave as the exterior display is also being turned on. That has a series of changing patterns that take about 5 minutes to cycle through the full range.


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One comment
  1. Sally says:

    Sounds very interesting. Bristol already has the sort of weekend you mention, when people put up illuminated displays in their windows. It’s called Window Wanderland, usually in February or early March. I’m not sure how widespread it is, but it started in the Bishopston area.

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