Show Business in Georgian Britain
Two Last Nights! showing at The Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury
Written by Daen Palma Huse
The 18th century was a time of uninhibited entertainment in London. People would flock to theatres and show houses with crowds gathering nightly entertainments taking place. Amongst these were not only comedy and tragedy at the theatre, but opera, circus performances, puppet shows and many more. Allegedly, puppet shows were in fact too violent for children at a time, being introduced to the world of Punch and Judy with the character of Punch being transformed into a glove puppet around 1800. Comedy and drama proved to be very popular, but performance spaces were more than just spaces to see a show on stage.
The Foundling Museum now shows memorabilia and visuals in an exhibition titled “Two Last Nights! Show Business in Georgian Britain” – allowing us to delve into the world of performance through looking at fans, opera glasses, theatre tickets, stage designs, and prints by Thomas Rowlandson and William Horgarth, caricatures by John Nixon and other objects and small installations.
Tucked away in the heart of Bloomsbury, just between St. George’s Gardens and Brunswick Square Gardens, The Foundling Museum explores the history of the Foundling Hospital – the UK’s first children’s charity and first public art gallery. The Foundling Hospital was found by Thomas Coram in 1739 and has a long history of delivering a varied education to vulnerable children, including the teaching of music and art. William Hogarth (born 1697) and George Frideric Handel (born 1685) helped establish the Hospital as one of London’s most fashionable venues. While Hogarth encouraged leading artists of the day to donate work, Handel donated an organ and conducted annual benefit concerts of Messiah in the Hospital’s chapel until his death in 1759.
The current exhibition “Two Last Nights! Show Business in Georgian Britain” is imaginative and gives context to the history of annual Messiah benefit concerts at the Hospital. When the benefit concerts first started, there were no concert halls as such but rather, music would be performed in theatres, music societies or in the homes of the wealthy. Handel’s concerts at the Foundling Hospital thus proved very popular and occupied a place in the annual social calendar of concert-goes in early Georgian Britain.
The exhibition opens up beyond the Messiah and introduces us to various themes around show business, including the less obvious. Not only were theatres a place to see and be seen, becoming a place for ladies and gentlemen to show off latest dress fashion from their boxes, but the less glamorous side of going to see performances were large crowds, ventilation and compromising sanitary situations. The first three indoor water-closets were installed in 1782 at the Opera House in the Haymarket for an audience of 1800 (!), which leaves us to speculate about what was going on inside and outside of theatres before that. The Theatrical Observer wrote in 1830: “not withstanding the liberal use of perfume by the ladies… the house retained some of the disagreeable odour left by the filthy mob that filled in on the previous night.”
The Foundling Museum looks behind the scenes, at set design, machinery and lighting, with several small interactive models in the gallery space. We can see ladies’ fans that were sold with the opera programme printed thereon, as well as opera glasses and smelling salt bottles, which were in frequent use in theatres of the time.
The walls of the downstairs gallery of The Foundling Museum as well as some of the upper rooms are furnished with various prints, not only including marvellous works by artists of the time but rather beautifully printed theatre tickets that are on display. In the prints we can see crowds gathering, theatre boxes, ladies being dressed in their clothes prior to attending a performance, and several lovely caricatures. Whilst the downstairs gallery space of The Foundling Museum is simple, the exhibition leaves us fulfilled with impressions and anecdotes that make us feel like we had the chance to take a peek into the world of Georgian Show business – much like “A Peep Behind the Curtain at Drury Lane” as illustrated by James Sayers in 1789.
Two Last Nights! Show Business in Georgian Britain is on show until 05 January 2020 at The Foundling Museum.