A new summer exhibition has opened at the Queen’s Gallery that takes a long and richly decorated look at Georgian-era clothing fashions. The exhibition tells the story of 18th-century fashion through portraiture, covering the four Georges – from the accession of King George I in 1714 to the death of George IV in 1830.
What makes the exhibition more interesting than just room after room of paintings of rich dead people is that they’ve also looked at how the clothes were made, cleaned, and often recycled.
This exhibition brings together over 75 paintings from the Royal Collection, over 50 works on paper, miniatures, prints, and drawings, alongside accessories and jewellery from the period. Unusually for the Queen’s Gallery, which usually only shows works from the Royal Collection, they’ve also included some clothes on loan from other museums. Many of the clothes on show are rarely displayed because putting them on display is avoided to prevent damage, so this is a rare chance to see some of the items in the exhibition.
The gallery has also paired the fabrics they’ve been loaned with the paintings of the person wearing them. Not only can you compare the painted version with the actual object, but also most paintings only ever show the front of the clothes, and here you can usually see their equally richly decorated backs.
This is also a slightly unusual exhibition in that it’s not grouped by artist or school, but by the chronology of the fashions depicted. That has allowed them to put less well known artists next to the big name painters in a way that would be unlikely to happen elsewhere.
While the rooms are filled with richly decorated paintings of the great and occasionally good, what takes the exhibition beyond simply looking at paintings is the exploration of how the clothes were made and looked after.
Few of the servants could ever commission an expensive painting, but many were sketched, so the exhibition shows off, for example, a room with a row of tailors all sitting close to a window to get the best light in the days before gas lighting, or the washerwoman adding blue to the water to disguise the yellowing of the white fabric. Something that’s still done to this day with washing powders – although most people are unaware of it.
With everything handmade, and in the days before more elastic fabrics, generally, custom-made for the wearer, the clothes were exceptionally expensive — and often recycled. From mistress to servant to family, to cut up and reused. A book on display has clearly been bound using worn fabric from a grand lady’s dress.
Even if not handed down, they were often adjusted for the wearer, so modern curators can look at how a dress has been enlarged, several times, to fit a more portly owner later in life. Imagine having your weight gain preserved as a record in your clothes for future generations.
The paintings though show the changing fashions over the decades of the Four Georges, and particularly how military fashions changed in the nobles who were painted in their officer’s uniforms. There’s a particularly good pairing of two officers a decade apart showing how their tunics transitioned from bright blue to a much darker blue that was more suitable for warfare.
There’s also satire here, mocking the efforts of the portly Georgian gentleman to squeeze into their clothes, but also highlighting how the poor are abused to make a gentleman look gentlemanly. Do pay attention to the dentistry and how poor people sometimes sold their teeth to pay their bills. Not that the rich seemed to benefit that much and were rarely able to smile in paintings — look at the portrait of George Washington for a man who looks like he’s in pain holding a denture in place.
Those insights into the dark underbelly of what it took to look glamorous in the Georgian era lifts this exhibition from a good collection of grand paintings into something quite revealing and educational as well.
If you gift-aid your ticket, you also get unlimited return visits for a year, which means you can also visit their winter exhibition later this year for free. So in effect, two exhibitions for the price of one.
- Adult: £17
- Young Person (18-24): £11
- Child (5-17)/Concessions: £9
- Under 5: Free
Tickets can be booked from here.
There’s also a very large and as I found out carrying it home, very heavy exhibition catalogue available from the shop.