Regency England at the Huntington Library

The Huntington Library is hosting an exhibit “Revisiting the Regency: England, 1811-1820” from April 23 – August 1, 2011:

A new exhibition takes a closer look at a glittering yet turbulent era.  In October of 1810, England’s King George III slipped into that final madness from which only death would release him, nearly a decade later. The following February, Parliament authorized the king’s estranged and profligate eldest son, the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), to rule in his place as regent. Extravagant, emotional, controversial, and self-indulgent, the prince regent lent his name and many of his characteristics to a glittering era. 

In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of this extraordinary decade, The Huntington presents an exhibition titled “Revisiting the Regency: England, 1811–1820.” Opening April 23 in the West Hall of the Library and continuing through Aug. 1, the exhibition draws on The Huntington’s extensive holdings of rare books, manuscripts, prints, and drawings documenting this historic era.

The term “Regency England” usually evokes Jane Austen’s world of graceful country-house living and decorous village society, the elegance of London’s fashionable elite, or the licentious activities of the prince and his aristocratic Carlton House set. Ladies followed the latest fashions in La Belle Assemblée while gentlemen copied Beau Brummell’s severe elegance. Readers found new works by a generation of England’s greatest poets and novelists: Austen, Lord Byron, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Sir Walter Scott. Londoners enjoyed a rich theatrical and musical life, watching Edmund Kean’s premiere in Richard III or hearing the first English production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Art lovers followed the latest exhibits at the Royal Academy. Under the prince’s patronage, architect John Nash created the fantasy Royal Pavilion at Brighton and remade London’s West End with the new developments of Regent’s Park and Regent Street.

Yet underneath this ordered upper-class surface lay a far more complex and turbulent world: more than a century of intermittent war with France ended at Waterloo, but peace revealed wrenching poverty, social unrest, the strains of rapid industrialization, and growing calls for political reform. The first railroads, gas lighting, and other advances in technology altered the landscape of everyday life.

This rich cavalcade of people and events provided irresistible targets for a brilliant generation of visual satirists. The witty, savage, and iconic images of George Cruikshank and his fellow caricaturists, well represented in the exhibition, capture all the vagaries of an extraordinary decade in English arts, letters, science, and society.

[Text and images from the Huntington Library website]

Copyright @2011, by Deb Barnum of Jane Austen in Vermont

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