On Saturday, opened a new exhibit in the Library’s West Hall called “Revisiting the Regency: England, 1811-1820”, commemorating the 200th anniversary of an important era in British history. As the eyes of the world turn once again to Britain this week to witness the marriage of Prince William, "Revisiting the Regency" gives a valuable glimpse into another time when England, and especially London, was at the center of the world stage. This significant decade was marked by the growth of literary, musical and theatrical arts, rapid scientific advances, and—as a backdrop to it all—the remarkable excesses of England’s capricious ruler, the Prince Regent George IV.
“It’s a fun period,” said curator Mary Robertson, The Huntington’s William A. Moffett Curator of Historical Manuscripts, at a press preview on Friday after leading attending journalists (including yours truly) on a tour around the carefully arranged displays in the Library’s West Hall. Each case highlights a key theme of the Regency, from “Icons of Polite Society” and “Fashionable Art” to “War and Peace” and “Science and Technology.”
Among the more than 70 rare books, manuscripts, prints and drawings from The Huntington’s collections that comprise “Revisiting the Regency” are several illustrations by renowned satirical cartoonist George Cruikshank, an original pass to one of the highly exclusive Almack’s balls, a journal from the U.S.S. Constitution describing the battle against Britain's Guerriere that won the American frigate the nickname Old Ironsides and a copy of a book by German chemist Friedrich Accum called (provocatively enough) Death in the Pot, which denounced the use of chemical food additives and called for greater attention to consumer safety.
My favorite object in the exhibit is a fragment of an original autographed manuscript by Beethoven. As a classical music lover, the opportunity to see music inscribed by the great composer himself nearly had me drooling on the display case. And if you’re wondering what Beethoven had to do with the Regency, I guess you’d better go to The Huntington and find out.
Of course, any discussion of the Regency has to include a reference to one of the period’s best-loved authors, Jane Austen. With this exhibit, visitors have the opportunity to see a rare first edition of Austen’s arguably most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, alongside first editions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the poems of Coleridge and Keats, and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.
The first half of the exhibit focuses on the varied cultural, literary and artistic attractions that defined the years between 1811 and 1820, but we soon learn that it wasn’t all watercolors, high tea and nights with the Royal Philharmonic. Robertson writes in the gallery guide, “Great Britain by 1815 had gained a world-wide empire, but at the cost of massive casualties, a staggering national debt, and severe political repression under a conservative Tory government worried that the fever for revolutions might spread across the channel.” (Remember that the French Revolution had occurred less than 30 years prior, beginning in 1789.)
One of the Cruikshank cartoons indicates the reasons for the growing unrest among Britain’s general populace by depicting three “Generals of the Peace”—General Complaint (who’s got an alarmingly long list in his hands), General Bankruptcy, and General Starvation. Robertson read to us from General Complaint’s list, which includes: “decline of trade and starving manufacturers” “war taxes” “high price of provisions”, “500,000 disbanded soldiers and sailors unprovided for and thrown upon the public”—and it goes on. “A lot of these things start to sound very familiar,” said Robertson.
“Revisiting the Regency” is open to the public from now until August 1, 2011, in the Library’s West Hall. For information, call 626-405-2100 or visit huntington.org.