The Georgians: misty-eyed poets and hard-nosed industrialists; rabble-raising radicals and monarchy-loving conservatives; jiggly-jowled aristocrats and sooty-faced workers. When we think of Britain today – with all its paradoxes, intrigues, and (in places) beauty – we must also think of the Georgians. Here’s Britain’s best places to find them
The Royal Pavilion
In the historic seaside town of Brighton, the Royal Pavilion stands tall (and stands out) as a unique reminder of our Georgian past. Built in the Indo-Saracenic style prevalent in India for most of the 19th century, the Pavilion’s design reflects a taste for the exotic that was an alternative to more classicising mainstream of the Regency era.
Originally built in 1787 as a modest hideaway for the Prince of Wales (later George IV), the Pavilion was extended in 1815 to accommodate the decadent social events the Prince loved to host. As you visit the gargantuan Grand Kitchen, the beautiful banqueting hall, or the magnificent music room, you can really get a flavour of what it must have been like to party with royalty at the 19th century court.
Jane Austen’s House Museum
The Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire is the only house where Britain’s best loved novelist lived and wrote that is open to the public, and is a must visit for Georgian enthusiasts.
The museum’s collection includes eight music books owned by Jane Austen (with pieces transcribed in her own hand), a Hepplewhite bureau-bookcase containing several of her works, and a pair of topaz crosses belonging to Jane and Cassandra (a gift from their younger brother Charles).
These items and more are on display as part of the museum’s ‘41 Objects’ collection marking the bicentenary of Austen’s death, with each object exploring a different aspect of Jane Austen’s life, work, and legacy.
Outside, there is a chance to enjoy a picnic in the peaceful cottage garden and imagine Austen in her smock digging up the potatoes (much to her niece’s embarrassment).
Bury St. Edmunds
Set in the county of Suffolk, Ickworth House is a wonderful example of 18th century neoclassical architecture emblematic of the Georgian and Regency epochs. Boasting an imposing central rotunda and curved corridors, this striking edifice was the original party pad for the 4th Earl of Bristol. A consummate Italophile, the 4th Earl based his design on the concepts of Mario Asprucci, noted for his work at the Villa Borghese in Rome.
Ickworth has arguably the best collection in Britain of fine Georgian silver, as well as some very good examples of Regency furniture and porcelain. In addition, Ickworth houses an unrivalled series of 18th century family portraits by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, and William Hogarth (the ‘who’s who’ of Georgian portraitists).
Ickworth is also just a 12 minute drive from the Theatre Royal – Britain’s last surviving Regency playhouse and the only working theatre in the National Trust’s property portfolio. With many of its original features still intact, it is one of the most beautiful, intimate, and historic theatres in the world, with such names as Dame Judy Dench having trodden the boards there.
Benjamin Franklin House
“You may delay, but time will not.” How right you are, Mr. Franklin. So do not delay, pay a visit to the Benjamin Franklin House Museum in Westminster – the only surviving former residence of Benjamin Franklin.
A scientist, a publisher, a diplomat, and a Founding Father of the United States, Franklin left an indelible mark on the Georgian world. His house at 36 Craven Street was the first site outside the US to gain ‘Save America’s Treasures’ designation and would top the list of places to visit in London for anyone interested in 18th century politics and society.
The ‘Historical Experience’ presents the excitement and uncertainty of Franklin’s nearly 16 years in London using his historic rooms as staging for a drama which seamlessly integrates live performance with cutting-edge lighting and projection technology, allowing visitors to plunge themselves into the world Franklin’s London.
The Foundling Museum
Staying in London, the Foundling Museum is a hidden gem of Georgian era riches. Britain’s first children’s charity and public art gallery, The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram, supported by William Hogarth and George Frederic Handel.
Today, the Foundling Museum is an art and history museum, celebrating the ways in which artists of all disciplines have helped improve children’s lives for over 275 years. As you wonder through the picture gallery, you can gaze upon portraits of governors and hospital officials through the ages, rendered by some of Britain’s most notable Georgian artists. These include Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of the Earl of Dartmouth and Thomas Hudson’s portrait of the hospital’s architect, Theodore Jacobsen.
The Museum is also home to the Gerald Coke Handel Collection, an internationally-important collection of material relating to Handel and his contemporaries where visitors can learn about his connection to the Foundling Hospital and see the testament he left behind.
A home to make the Earl of Grantham blush, Harewood House is a true architectural wonder of the Georgian age. Designed by Robert Adam and Robert ‘Capability’ Brown, Harewood is a member of the Treasure Houses of England and considered amongst the ten foremost historic homes in the country.
Set in over 100 acres of exquisite gardens to explore, the house and grounds have featured in both the television and film versions of ‘Brideshead Revisited’, and since 1996 part of the estate has been developed as the village in the ITV soap opera ‘Emmerdale’.
With art collections to rival the finest in Britain, a bird garden housing a small assemblage of exotic bird species (of which several are listed as vulnerable or endangered), and family events such as deer trails running throughout the year, Harewood House is amongst the most beautiful and significant reminders of our Georgian past to be found anywhere in the country.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the home of Georgian gentleman – you’ll do well to conjure anything as beautiful or emblematic as the Royal Crescent in Bath. Comprising 30 grand terrace houses in the Palladian style situated opposite the Royal Victoria Park, such figures as William Wilberforce and Elizabeth Ann Linley once called the Royal Crescent home.
Today, Number 1 Royal Crescent serves the headquarters of the Bath Preservation Trust and also operates as a house museum displaying authentic room sets, furniture, pictures and other items illustrating Georgian domestic life both above stairs and below stairs.
The Museum of Bath Architecture is a mere 8 minute walk away, exhibiting a series of models, maps, paintings and reconstructions which explain the building of the Georgian era city during the 18th century.
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“It has been a damned nice thing” – a quote attributed to the Duke of Wellington following his victory at the Battle of Waterloo. Visit his home at Apsley House and you may well find yourself echoing the Iron Duke!
Once known as ‘Number 1, London’ and situated on Hyde Park Corner, Apsley is perhaps the only preserved example of an English aristocratic town house from its period. With many rooms maintaining their original style and décor, Apsley oozes the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of the Regency era.
Visitors are able to delve into the art and history of Apsley House with the aid of a multimedia guide. As you tour the house, you will be awed by the palatial wonder of the gilded, glittering interiors and the nearly 3,000 fine paintings, sculptures, and works of art in silver and porcelain, given by the Tsars and Kings of Europe to Britain’s greatest military hero.
The Georgians were not all buttons and bows. They were slave drivers and plantations owners too. That is until one man – William Wilberforce – fought to end the trade in human chattel and change history forever. At the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull – the UK’s city of culture 2017 – you can wonder around the birthplace of the city’s most famous son and the Georgian era’s most notable social reformer.
The museum tells the story of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its abolition, as well as the life, work, and legacy of Wilberforce. The permanent displays include items of clothing and furniture belonging to Wilberforce – such as his chair and golden and mauve woven silk coat – as well as many significant objects offering a fascinating glimpse into West African culture more broadly.
A visit to Wilberforce House is essential to anyone interested in the texture and tenor of social reform in an era that was full of change. Yes, splendiferous soirées and fancy feasts, for many, continue to define the era. Wilberforce House reminds us, though, that the Georgian epoch was also a time when men and women fought for the creation of a better and more just world.
The Georgian House
Next, up to bonny Scotland and a visit to the Georgian House in Edinburgh. One of the most visited sites in the National Trust Scotland’s portfolio, the house was designed by acclaimed architect Robert Adam and was a real statement of Georgian luxury.
Visitors to the house are free to walk around the house at their own pace, with volunteer guides ready to answer questions. Upstairs you will find all the tasteful trappings of Georgian wealth. Below stairs, the kitchen and servants’ room tell a different tale, where servants worked for up to 16 hours a day to ensure the smooth running of the household.
Children and adults can dress up in replica costumes in the Activity Room and even wear them as they explore the house. Visitors may also enjoy handling replica objects and writing with quill pens on Georgian-themed colouring sheets, making the Georgian House one of the most interactive and enjoyable Regency attractions in the country.
New Lanark Village
The Georgian era was a time of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Whilst the rich enjoyed their dinner parties the poor suffered in smog. The award-winning New Lanark Visitor Centre tells the fascinating story of New Lanark as an experiment in utopian socialism founded by the Georgian reformer Robert Owen.
Against the oftentimes brutal backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, Owen provided decent homes, fair wages, free health care, free education, and the first workplace nursery school in the world!
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, New Lanark welcomes visitors from all over the world. Travel back in time on the Annie Mcleod Experience ride which features mill girl Annie who magically appears and reveals the amazing story of her life and times in New Lanark.