A Woman's Touch At Home with the Georgians


A Woman's Touch

On a journey from stately home to pauper's attic Amanda Vickery reveals how 'taste' became the buzzword of the age and gave women a new outlet for their creativity.


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'Open House day in London,

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'an annual event where anyone who cares gets the chance to nosey around other people's houses.'

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You can see how it changes the space when you open it.

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'It's an irresistible chance to judge the taste of others.'

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-Would you like to live here?

-Definitely.

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I like how the stairs are made.

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You might think this fascination with other people's homes is new,

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that it's a modern obsession that sits alongside our interest in DIY,

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in home-make-over stores and in design magazines.

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But in fact,

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the idea that house and home expressed your taste and personality

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first took hold 300 years ago in Georgian Britain.

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In this era Britain discovered the joys of catalogue shopping,

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his and hers furniture and the social call for a cup of tea and a gossip.

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We've already seen that in the 18th century,

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having your own front door was a great British obsession,

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the keystone of success and happiness.

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But once the happy home was established, the big question became,

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"What should it look like? How did you fill it?"

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And it was then that Georgian women of all ranks came into their own.

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See, that's much better!

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They grasped a new opportunity to express their characters in colours and patterns,

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and so made homes their stage.

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Through studying the diaries, letters and accounts of Georgian women,

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I've realised that this expression of female creativity also carried the risk of ridicule and mockery.

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Because the transformation of Georgian interiors coincided with the birth of a new way of judging homes -

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an idea that trips up the best of us today!

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And that idea is good taste.

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To see the difference this 18th-century make over made,

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I've come to the remarkable Parham House in Sussex.

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Here two rooms, side by side, encapsulate a style revolution.

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This is the old model of decoration.

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It's an Elizabethan great hall.

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You can see from the decoration -

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the pewter, the paintings of the dynastic family.

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What it is saying is, "We are an ancient family with deep roots in this English soil."

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And up here we have the deer's head,

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the trophies of the hunt.

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It reeks of testosterone, of military power.

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This is the male-dominated world preceding the Georgians.

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But literally metres away and you step into a chic and cosmopolitan new order.

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300 years ago there was a dramatic transformation to this.

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That butch, feudal dining hall is history,

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giving way to the prettiness and politeness of this Georgian saloon.

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A thin partition divides two rooms light years apart in attitude.

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This is what happened when Georgian women exerted their influence

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and designed a room suited to their needs,

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a room where they could perform and preside.

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The whole thing has a much lighter, prettier feel.

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If it wasn't such a cliche, I'd say this room had a woman's touch.

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Spearheading this changing aesthetic were the ladies of the Georgian elite -

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dazzling, educated, confident and, above all, rich.

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And luckily for me, one of them, society leader Sophia Lady Shelburne,

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detailed her exploration of the new world of style in her private diaries.

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I think this is a very moving document because in it Lady Shelburne, Sophia,

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tells the story of her private life and it's the story of her marriage.

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These manuscripts reveal a sensitive woman

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revelling in the golden opportunity to shape her surroundings.

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Saturday the 23rd of March, 1765, to Lord Northumberland's at Syon.

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Recently married, she'd come to inspect a brand-new London show home - Syon House.

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For Lady Shelburne this wasn't a social call.

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This was a reconnaissance mission

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to find out what was happening in architecture in the 1760s.

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The bride was looking for pointers for her own building plans

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and she was impressed.

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The fine apartment consists of a beautiful hall stuccoed and left white...

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..a saloon in which we saw the most beautiful large pillars imaginable of verde antique...

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..placed at proper distances around the room.

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What she was doing was kind of keeping up with the Joneses

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because she's checking out what are the great aristocrats building.

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Could she have a house like it?

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Maybe she thought, "Well, I'll have those columns, but I'll leave off a bit of that gold."

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Next to this a dining room, stuccoed and gilt-decorated with Corinthian pillars that screen off the doors.

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So that must be there.

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Corinthian pillars screening off the doors.

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By the drawing room, Lady Shelburne was transported to antiquity.

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The drawing room has also the same prospect.

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The ceiling is beautifully coloured and painted in a mosaic form

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in which are the pictures from Herculaneum.

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In the 18th century, aristocrats were rich and they wanted to show it.

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So showing off your opulence and your magnificence

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is absolutely fine as long as you've got the blue blood to go with it.

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Syon exceeds anything I ever saw in magnificence and beauty.

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Lady Shelburne was wowed by the flashy mix of ancient inspiration and modern money

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and so she decided to get a Syon of her own

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and she went about it the simplest way possible -

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by hiring the same architect.

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Robert Adam was THE fashionable piping-hot architect of that moment,

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responsible for world-famous terraces like Edinburgh's exquisite Charlotte Square.

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And beautiful interiors like here at Nostell Priory in Yorkshire.

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The Shelburnes commissioned him to design a London townhouse in exclusive Berkeley Square.

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And this is it. This is what remains of Shelburne House -

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a townhouse built by Robert Adam for Lord and Lady Shelburne as a political headquarters,

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a showcase for a rising star of the Whig party.

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It was to be a public house -

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not a place of cosy domesticity, but a great platform for power.

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Lady Shelburne was abreast of the latest in design.

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She knew Adam had caught the Zeitgeist.

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Europe was undergoing a classical revival,

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turning its back on the florid ornamentation and curves of the baroque and the rococo.

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Instead, architects were fascinated by the geometry

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and stripped-down purity of ancient Rome.

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The ruling classes took for granted the superiority of Rome,

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one mighty empire respectfully drawing on the style rules of another.

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Ladies like Sophia may not have had a formal education in Latin and Greek,

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but they read the classics in translation and could recognise at a glance

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the mythological significance of sculptures and art.

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And Sophia, Lady Shelburne, was a swot.

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She even studied prints of classical ruins when she was in early labour with their second child.

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SOPHIA PANTS

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Maybe those architectural prints did speed her along,

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or maybe they put her in a calm state of mind and enabled her really to cope with the pain

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and speed along the labour and have a successful birth.

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Lady Shelburne was fascinated by this new vogue - neoclassicism -

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triggered by the excavation of the ancient Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

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You can see details lifted direct from the archaeological digs

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in Robert Adam's designs for Shelburne House.

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These are the plans that Robert Adam made for Lord and Lady Shelburne for Berkeley Square.

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This is Robert Adam's design for the Shelburne's dining room.

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This is where all the Whigs would come to meet and discuss politics with Lord Shelburne.

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Shelburne goes on to become the Prime Minister,

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so it's a bit like the West Wing of the White House today.

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It seems quite cold, chaste, powerful and manly.

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But Robert Adam always offered an alternative for the ladies.

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There was always a drawing room.

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When the men settled down to their brandy, to their politics, to their toasts,

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the ladies withdrew to a room which expressed more playfulness

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and exquisite taste.

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And here we are, this is the carpet

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of the drawing room at Shelburne house.

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So whereas the dining room was austere and monochrome,

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this is bright, lively, playful.

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It's a room which expresses femininity.

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And here at their Wiltshire country seat, Bowood House,

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the Shelburne's very modern marriage

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meant that both Lord and Lady had the opportunity to express their style.

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Thursday 30th May, 1765.

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Arrived at Bowood.

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I was much pleased with this place and found it in a state I think most agreeable,

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it being habitable and beautiful.

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But nesting aristocrats like the Shelburnes

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did more than titivate a property with the odd textile.

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They made the very earth move.

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To please his new wife, Lord Shelburne had asked Capability Brown

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to excavate a lake and plant a forest.

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There remains to finish a considerable piece of water

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on the head of which they are now at work.

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The mausoleum remains only to be paved.

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Mr Brown's plantations are very young but promising.

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These glorious mature trees

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are the grown-up versions of the little baby plantations

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that Capability Brown established here in the 1760s

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and Lady Shelburne writes about in her diary.

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But what she doesn't mention is that that house there

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is the last remnant of an entire village,

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which had to be cleared away to make way for the lake.

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If the exterior fell to his Lordship's sphere,

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her Ladyship expected to express her connoisseurship indoors.

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It was time to shop.

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Saturday 28th. We went to Ince the cabinet-maker

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to see our furniture for the drawing room and my dressing room at Bowood.

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Our man has done a lovely job on the escutcheon here as well.

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Gave Ince plans from Herculaneum and Palmyra for ornaments for a commode of yew

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inlaid with holly and ebony.

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The one I wanted to talk to you about...

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This must be huge.

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Because I want the detail to...

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I find that charming, that they go out together arm in arm to have a good look at their furniture.

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How it's doing, how it's coming on, to pass their opinions.

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You get a strong sense that this is a couple working out what they think about life and marriage

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through their shopping really.

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This is also of utmost importance...

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Britain was booming.

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Trade brought a host of new materials to our shores,

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and British workshop ingenuity was unleashed on domestic goods.

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And perhaps the most brilliant new producer was Matthew Boulton,

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a manufacturer and commercial impresario, who lived here - Soho House in Birmingham.

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Boulton was the first brass baron, churning out shiny metals

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to glitter on polite dining tables,

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from candlesticks

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to pepper pots.

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He did produce a vast array of things.

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Half a million objects came out of the Soho factory in 1780 alone

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and he had an amazingly fertile ingenuity.

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I'm awed really by his entrepreneurial panache.

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He is an entrepreneur of taste.

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In a stroke of genius, Boulton realised that the new decision makers in interior design were female.

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Boulton's respect for and understanding of women

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first struck me when I read his personal letters in this Birmingham archive.

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One of the fantastic things about Matthew Boulton's

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private letters to his wife is they give you an insight into the kind of man he was,

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but also how cleverly he seduced female consumers.

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My dear,

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I am tired of the fatigue of this day and out of humour

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and therefore I will endeavour to repose myself

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and get myself into a good humour again

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by turning my thoughts towards my dear wife.

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He comes over in these letters as bubbly, charismatic,

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fascinated by women, wanting to understand what they wanted

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and very, very fond of his wife.

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Of all the men that I've studied

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who think about the home and write about the home,

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I have to say Matthew Boulton is the only one I can imagine marrying,

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because a lot of men know how to court a woman,

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but not many men know how to keep a woman happy.

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Matthew Boulton even charmed his way into Lady Shelburne's bedroom.

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I paid a visit to Lord Shelburne.

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Lady Shelburne sent a message desiring that she might come down,

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but as she was ill of a putrid sore throat my Lord desired she would not,

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and therefore wished she could have a few of my pretty things in her room to amuse her.

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I therefore took coach and fetched a load for her

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'and sat with her Ladyship for two hours explaining and hearing her criticisms.'

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Never was no man so much complimented as I have been.

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I think that's quite an extraordinary little episode.

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Really, Matthew Boulton's a bit like an Avon lady who's gone off, got a cache of his treasures,

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come back and sat in, after all, an aristocratic lady's bedroom

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and discussed his products with her and listened to her criticisms for a couple of hours.

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You really don't know there who's leading who,

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but it shows how cleverly he can manage the carriage trade, the quality trade.

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But Boulton was far from monogamous to toffs like Lady Shelburne.

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He saved plenty of his flair for the rank and file.

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The nobility may have led fashion, but they were a tiny group,

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just 300 families.

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There were tens of thousands of professionals, shopkeepers,

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small manufacturers, who constituted the mighty middle market.

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So Boulton cunningly offered them

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a cut-price version of the aristocratic family silver

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made of Sheffield plate - copper coated with a thin veneer of silver.

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Here's the contrast.

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This is solid...piece of silver...

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Oooh...

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Would have cost a bomb.

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It's a tea urn for dispensing hot water

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and here's the Sheffield plate version.

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A bit lighter,

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but still very, very elegant,

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stamped with fashion at a fraction of the cost.

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So here you have it -

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taste and elegance on your dining table on a budget.

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It was an irresistible combination, so seductive to the upwardly mobile.

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Ink stand.

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More mustard pots.

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These great big urns for hot water.

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Serving knives.

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You could just go on and on.

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A fabulous array.

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The appeal of this in the 18th century might have been something like

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the appeal of Habitat in the 1960s.

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This idea you could have well-designed things

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that still had a kind of feel of modernity about them.

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Other astute producers also noticed that the female market was a new commercial opportunity.

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Rising star of British furniture design Thomas Chippendale

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realised that the social differences between the sexes

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might be celebrated in furniture.

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Why settle for one unisex desk when every couple needs two?

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It's a big, strong, important desk this.

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I wonder if it made a man feel very manly sitting behind it.

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"Look at me. Look at my big desk."

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With the gents taken care of, Chippendale broke the mould

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by adding a ladies' range -

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dainty desks designed to show off the petite charms of the fairer sex.

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You'd have to be pretty careful

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to get all your skirt underneath here to manage your writing.

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You'd be doing it in public.

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You'd be making quite a performance of it, I think,

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so in that performance, you're expressing

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your femininity, your grace, your deportment and your politeness.

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It has an ingenious device attached to it. This is a face-saver.

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You'd pull up this screen when you're writing your letters in front of the fire,

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designed to protect ladies' complexions

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because you want to hang onto your white skin as long as possible.

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Once the bloom's gone off, it's all over for you

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and the bloom goes off very early, about 25.

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Chippendale also introduced another lady's favourite,

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an innovation that has transformed the way we shop today.

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He was the first person in British manufacturing to produce a catalogue of his own designs.

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It's a work of genius.

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He sets out all his designs

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and you'd think this would ruin him - everybody would copy them,

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his designs would lose all their exclusivity - but in fact,

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nothing could be further from the truth.

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It really launched his business,

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not to mention the avalanche of catalogues driving sales today.

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And many of these new, ingenious products

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were aimed squarely at the Georgian middle market.

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Here at Temple Newsam in Leeds,

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they've a furniture collection for consumers without the luxury of space

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that you'd get in a grand house like this.

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This is an example of metamorphic furniture,

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furniture that can turn into something else.

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The Georgians absolutely loved it.

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Let's see if I can operate the mechanism.

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It looks like any old chest,

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might be storing your linens in or something,

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but with a bit of heft you can turn it into something else.

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SHE GRUNTS

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Then...you go like this.

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Finally, out with the...

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flea-infested mattress.

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There we go. Your chest has become a roll-down bed.

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This is just the sort of thing that you would find in a poorer person's lodging.

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Packed away for the day and revealed for the night

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so that you could make the most use of a tiny space.

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And their ingenuity was prodigious.

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Why have one table when you can have three?

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And this ingenious device

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looks like a set of stairs you use to climb into bed.

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But in fact...

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A little bit of manipulation...

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Voila! It's a loo.

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And this is my favourite.

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It's a tea table,

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but with a little bit of engineering

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you can drop

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your tea things out of sight,

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flip the leaves across...

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..and there -

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your dirty things all hidden

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and you could use this as a card table or a desk.

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It's the lazy girl's friend.

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I think metamorphic furniture tells us a lot about Georgian homes.

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It's not just bought by the rich.

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In fact, I think it's middling families in towns who most wanted this sort of stuff.

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With producers pandering to the middle ranks,

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Mrs Average relished the new world of goods.

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The embodiment of the new Georgian consumer

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was a dressy and indefatigable old lady called Mrs Martha Dodson.

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She was the widow of a tin manufacturer

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and she shopped until she dropped, literally,

0:23:590:24:03

here in these streets in the city of London.

0:24:030:24:05

How do I know? Not from her diary, but from her account book.

0:24:050:24:11

She was 62 when she started keeping this account book

0:24:110:24:15

and keeps it all the way through until she dies.

0:24:150:24:18

She was affluent and dignified,

0:24:180:24:22

but she was nevertheless pleasing herself with china and chintz.

0:24:220:24:27

The account book reveals that for the last 19 years of her life,

0:24:270:24:31

until the age of 81, Mrs Dodson was regularly making over her house.

0:24:310:24:36

So here May, 1753,

0:24:360:24:40

"One white china teapot and stand

0:24:400:24:43

"and one china nun and one friar."

0:24:430:24:46

So she's got these little ornaments of a nun and a friar

0:24:460:24:50

to sit on the mantelpiece back at home.

0:24:500:24:53

Chintz wallpaper, chintz curtains,

0:24:530:24:57

bedside carpet, shelves for ornaments,

0:24:570:25:00

mahogany tea chest and endless teapots.

0:25:000:25:04

In May, 1754,

0:25:040:25:07

she bought one pair of blue and white Bow china sauceboats.

0:25:070:25:14

So Bow is a...

0:25:140:25:17

china company, which produced very serviceable, solid wares,

0:25:170:25:22

strongly, squarely aimed at the middle market.

0:25:220:25:25

So Mrs Dodson is their perfect customer.

0:25:250:25:28

She is a well-off, but very sensible and dignified widow.

0:25:280:25:36

I'm rather fond of Mrs Dodson. I have a bit of a soft spot for her.

0:25:360:25:40

I think she is like the sort of ideal grandmother

0:25:400:25:43

who you'd love to go and have tea with

0:25:430:25:47

and admire her new decorations.

0:25:470:25:50

The very last things she bought were a kettle, a set of dessert knives

0:25:500:25:55

and another teapot when she was 81.

0:25:550:25:59

I rather admire her really for carrying on with the decorating until her very last breath.

0:25:590:26:07

House-proud consumers like Martha Dodson

0:26:070:26:10

were also targeted in a surprisingly sophisticated way

0:26:100:26:14

by the pioneers of British advertising.

0:26:140:26:18

This is a fantastic and rare piece of advertising.

0:26:180:26:22

It is a hand bill

0:26:220:26:24

advertising The Queen's Royal Furniture Gloss.

0:26:240:26:28

"For cleaning and beautifying of furniture of all sorts. Sold here."

0:26:280:26:33

It depicts two women sat in a well-appointed and well-polished parlour

0:26:330:26:38

discussing the merits of The Queen's Royal Furniture Gloss.

0:26:380:26:44

And one is saying to the other, "Your furniture's exceeding nice. Pray, Madam, tell to me,

0:26:440:26:49

"what makes it so and what's the price, that mine the same may be."

0:26:490:26:55

"The Royal Gloss that makes it so, one shilling is the price.

0:26:550:26:59

"Do you buy one the trouble's none and yours will be as nice."

0:26:590:27:05

It is just like today when two ladies in a kitchen debate

0:27:050:27:09

the qualities of their latest washing powder.

0:27:090:27:13

That's a device that has lasted for hundreds of years.

0:27:130:27:16

This clever marketing helped to quicken the desire for new goods.

0:27:160:27:22

Georgian women of all ranks were taking pride in their homes

0:27:220:27:25

and were casting around for inspiration.

0:27:250:27:28

While we might look to design magazines or TV,

0:27:280:27:32

back then they had to seek out the real thing.

0:27:320:27:35

The owners of grand houses

0:27:350:27:36

threw open their doors and hordes of curious visitors took tours.

0:27:360:27:42

We've got two triumphal panels here.

0:27:420:27:44

They weren't just coming to while away the afternoon,

0:27:440:27:48

but to study the cutting edge of design

0:27:480:27:51

and to copy on a more modest scale.

0:27:510:27:54

Interior decoration had become a thrilling new venture.

0:27:540:27:58

Now we'll go to the dining room, shall we?

0:27:580:28:00

And critically for women, they were thought to have

0:28:000:28:04

an innate understanding of a fashionable new concept

0:28:040:28:08

governing what you should and shouldn't buy.

0:28:080:28:11

And that new concept was taste.

0:28:110:28:15

Taste is an idea invented by the French,

0:28:150:28:17

but the British snapped it up very quickly and made it their own.

0:28:170:28:21

Taste was the ability to appreciate beauty,

0:28:210:28:25

but it was about so much more than just the cut of your curtains or the colour of your tea set.

0:28:250:28:31

It demonstrated your sound judgment, your cultural knowledge and your exquisite manners.

0:28:310:28:37

At first, taste was celebrated as an accomplishment of the high-born and well-bred

0:28:380:28:44

with money to spend and the education to discriminate, like Lady Shelburne.

0:28:440:28:49

But the idea of taste caught on, spreading like wildfire across society.

0:28:490:28:54

And that raised a thorny question.

0:28:540:28:56

Do you have good taste? Do I?

0:28:560:28:59

This is one of my favourite 18th-century prints.

0:29:010:29:04

It's basically a joke about middle-class taste.

0:29:040:29:08

It's called a Common Council Man Of Candlestick Ward And His Wife

0:29:080:29:12

On A Visit To Mr Deputy At His Modern-Built Villa Near Clapham.

0:29:120:29:18

And this fantastically horrendous villa here

0:29:180:29:23

is a mish-mash of all the styles,

0:29:230:29:26

so it has this rotunda out here. There we go.

0:29:260:29:32

A little bit of the neoclassical.

0:29:320:29:34

Here it has ionic pillars round the door.

0:29:340:29:39

Also got a Venetian window here,

0:29:390:29:42

but then these both rather gothic features.

0:29:420:29:46

And then, hilariously, there's a dragon flying on the top.

0:29:460:29:51

And really this is an awful warning

0:29:510:29:54

about getting it wrong.

0:29:540:29:56

There are great risks attached

0:29:560:29:59

to trying to improve your status through architecture.

0:29:590:30:04

Get it wrong and you risk dreadful mockery.

0:30:040:30:07

One product above all illustrates the vivid way in which middling homes

0:30:110:30:15

were being improved and the anxieties attached to refurbishment.

0:30:150:30:20

To you it might seem like a mundane and rather quaint commodity,

0:30:200:30:24

but to me it is THE transformational material of Georgian interior decorating.

0:30:240:30:30

Enter wallpaper.

0:30:300:30:33

Try the next.

0:30:360:30:38

Yes, that will do nicely.

0:30:400:30:42

Here at Kenwood House,

0:30:460:30:48

curator Treve Rosoman, has squirreled away

0:30:480:30:51

an extraordinary collection of original Georgian wallpapers

0:30:510:30:55

salvaged from houses across London.

0:30:550:30:58

It shows the sheer variety of patterns and colours that became available to Georgian consumers.

0:30:580:31:05

Papers are really very good at picking up

0:31:050:31:09

the prevailing fashionable taste.

0:31:090:31:11

There is a very interesting paper that we found in Mayfair

0:31:110:31:15

with a Herculaneum-type pattern.

0:31:150:31:18

This is glorious!

0:31:180:31:20

What a lovely big piece as well.

0:31:200:31:23

There's even a bit of cut-price chinoiserie for the masses.

0:31:250:31:28

The joy of wallpaper is to actually see what people really lived with.

0:31:280:31:33

You can see the archaeology that surrounded people.

0:31:330:31:36

Who would have thought that wallpaper could reveal so much of domestic history?

0:31:360:31:42

Absolutely, it does.

0:31:420:31:43

People lived with much brighter colours that we think.

0:31:430:31:46

And wallpaper engaged a whole new strata of society in interior design.

0:31:470:31:53

And why wallpaper does that

0:31:530:31:56

is because it is so much cheaper than the alternative wall-coverings.

0:31:560:32:00

So you could get

0:32:000:32:01

something like 11 yards of paper for the cost of

0:32:010:32:06

one yard of the textile that the rich would have,

0:32:060:32:09

and wallpaper really is the story of the democratisation of taste.

0:32:090:32:14

Georgian women even slapped it up themselves, as captured in this watercolour by a female amateur.

0:32:170:32:25

It's a wonderful testament to female DIY.

0:32:250:32:29

But for women who were trying their hand at interior design for the very first time,

0:32:290:32:35

this was a highly anxious business.

0:32:350:32:38

What were these new rules of taste?

0:32:380:32:40

How did you know if you were being tasteful?

0:32:400:32:43

What was a tasteful paper?

0:32:430:32:46

The last thing they want to be seen to be

0:32:460:32:49

is too showy,

0:32:490:32:51

too flash, too vulgar, too gaudy.

0:32:510:32:54

So they were very concerned really to decorate with a tasteful elegance

0:32:560:33:01

which, in the 18th century, was called neatness.

0:33:010:33:05

So if you are neat and not too showy, you've got it right.

0:33:050:33:10

Even the choice of colour was a minefield.

0:33:110:33:14

It's got amazing depth of colour, hasn't it? The crimson...

0:33:140:33:19

The intensity of it.

0:33:190:33:21

It's like you are wallowing in crimson.

0:33:210:33:24

Red...seems very posh, regal.

0:33:250:33:30

Blue... I quite like blue.

0:33:300:33:33

Positive associations.

0:33:350:33:37

Yellow only becomes fashionable in the 18th century.

0:33:370:33:42

But neat and not too showy.

0:33:420:33:44

And a nice green.

0:33:440:33:46

Nobody could criticise you for that.

0:33:460:33:49

Wallpaper had become the height of fashion and advertising from the time

0:33:490:33:55

shows just how much wallpaper was targeted at the female audience.

0:33:550:34:00

This is a fantastic trade card for a wallpaper manufacturer.

0:34:020:34:06

"James Wheeley's Paperhanging Warehouse."

0:34:060:34:10

It is interesting, in trade cards, which ones have couples in them.

0:34:100:34:15

And wallpaper, and any goods which are associated with interiors, often have women in them.

0:34:150:34:23

So here we have a rather dressy couple and child.

0:34:230:34:27

The ladies taste is clearly to the fore.

0:34:270:34:30

Everybody seems to be deferring to her.

0:34:300:34:32

"What do you think, darling?"

0:34:320:34:34

And here the proprietor

0:34:340:34:36

is indicating a glorious roll of flowered paper

0:34:360:34:40

and she is making her choice.

0:34:400:34:41

So you can see how much wallpapering is associated with

0:34:410:34:45

setting up home, colour and family life.

0:34:450:34:49

So if you denied your wife the right to interior decoration,

0:34:490:34:53

you were choking the marriage,

0:34:530:34:54

as I found in the letters of a vicar's daughter, Mary Hewitt.

0:34:540:35:00

In 1749, newly married Mary Hewitt was laid up ill

0:35:000:35:05

at her family home in Essex.

0:35:050:35:08

Meanwhile, in Coventry,

0:35:080:35:10

her new husband was readying the martial home.

0:35:100:35:12

But the short-sighted James Hewitt had committed a cardinal sin.

0:35:120:35:18

As for the great parlour,

0:35:180:35:20

I don't propose meddling with it at present.

0:35:200:35:23

And if that is painting my money is throwing away.

0:35:230:35:27

He'd presumed to go ahead and redecorate their new marital home alone.

0:35:270:35:32

Paper for the staircase to be of a stucco pattern.

0:35:320:35:38

But frugal James Hewitt had elected to paper only halfway up the stairs,

0:35:380:35:42

just the bit that visitors would see.

0:35:420:35:45

I do not mean that any more of the staircase should be papered

0:35:450:35:50

than what appears as you come up to the front rooms.

0:35:500:35:53

Hewitt intended the house as a launch pad for a political career,

0:35:550:35:59

a base camp to which he would occasionally return.

0:35:590:36:03

At the very least, James should have drawn Mary into his plans.

0:36:030:36:07

He should have involved his wife in the decision-making process,

0:36:070:36:12

implicating her in their shared future.

0:36:120:36:15

She has no part of this fantasy of the married life that they're going to lead.

0:36:150:36:19

And when it occurs to her that she is going to be mewed up alone

0:36:190:36:23

in the showy terrace that she has done nothing to create, she rebels.

0:36:230:36:27

I must live eight months in a year without you or any father

0:36:270:36:34

in a place where I shall not have a single friend of my own to speak to.

0:36:340:36:39

I had much rather make room for your second wife

0:36:400:36:44

who may make you happier than I ever did.

0:36:440:36:47

For Mary, death or divorce were preferable to living alone

0:36:480:36:53

in a half-done house of someone else's taste.

0:36:530:36:56

She dug her heels in and refused to move.

0:36:560:37:00

The crisis nearly killed the marriage.

0:37:000:37:02

It would be years before Hewitt got her into his town house.

0:37:020:37:06

And a new craze also raised the stakes at home.

0:37:100:37:15

The Georgians were a sociable people

0:37:150:37:18

and threw open their doors with a flourish.

0:37:180:37:21

The phenomenon of visiting was born.

0:37:210:37:25

Now what your house looked like was crucial.

0:37:250:37:27

Private spaces became public stages,

0:37:270:37:31

making people worry that their tastes would be judged by guests and found wanting.

0:37:310:37:36

I've come to visit my good friend Charles Saumarez Smith.

0:37:360:37:40

-Hello.

-Hello.

0:37:420:37:44

'Along with his wife, Charles has restored a Georgian semi built for a vicar.'

0:37:480:37:54

All the china's been cleaned in your honour.

0:37:540:37:58

SHE LAUGHS

0:37:580:37:59

Has it really? Oh, this looks lovely.

0:37:590:38:02

You can have a choice of cups.

0:38:020:38:04

-So you've washed all of this especially.

-Especially.

0:38:070:38:11

This is very joyous, your corner cupboard.

0:38:110:38:14

I like those on the table.

0:38:140:38:16

-Do you want a cup of tea?

-I'd love a cup of tea.

0:38:160:38:18

The tea table became the venue for strong opinion and vicious gossip about people's taste.

0:38:200:38:26

Early depictions show worried men eavesdropping on ladies' conversations.

0:38:260:38:31

Visiting diaries I found for one socialite

0:38:310:38:34

recorded a feverish 18 visits a day in London society.

0:38:340:38:38

You'd barely have time to park your bottom on a sofa!

0:38:380:38:43

The whole kind of visiting cult seems to kick off

0:38:430:38:45

at the end of the 17th century and people start commenting on it.

0:38:450:38:49

And it seems to be linked to hot drinks

0:38:490:38:52

because you only need, at the end of the day,

0:38:520:38:55

a few tea leaves, a teapot and a teacup and you can be...

0:38:550:39:00

-To do the ritual.

-Yeah, to do the ritual.

0:39:000:39:02

And you find spinster ladies doing it in a single room.

0:39:020:39:07

But this was as much about having your parlour, paraphernalia

0:39:070:39:10

and fashionability examined as it was about conversation and company.

0:39:100:39:16

I have come across women saying they couldn't go visiting because their clothes weren't good enough.

0:39:160:39:22

You would only visit if you felt your front room could stand up to visitors.

0:39:220:39:26

That's why you were so disappointed that I wasn't wearing my frock coat.

0:39:260:39:30

I was pleased you put your mustard cords on in my honour!

0:39:300:39:35

But this would really stand up to it

0:39:350:39:36

because people would really be talking about what it looked like, what your china was like.

0:39:360:39:41

Yeah, I think people...

0:39:410:39:43

It is the same now.

0:39:430:39:45

Come and have a look at the other room on the ground floor.

0:39:450:39:49

Well, showing off the gaffe...

0:39:490:39:50

That's what it's all about.

0:39:500:39:52

This, again, we kept some of the original panelling.

0:39:520:39:55

The visit was the moment to digest and decide,

0:39:550:40:00

did you approve of the taste of your host?

0:40:000:40:03

And it meant your taste was exposed, vulnerable and open to judgement as never before.

0:40:060:40:11

As today, the smallest decorating decisions could be held up to scrutiny.

0:40:110:40:18

We've kept bits of

0:40:180:40:21

the sort of semi-derelict state it was in when we bought it.

0:40:210:40:25

You see bits of probably early-19th-century wallpaper.

0:40:250:40:30

Here you've got a fabric, so it wasn't straightforwardly panelled.

0:40:300:40:35

'So established had visiting become in the 18th century

0:40:350:40:38

'that if you weren't part of the constant traffic,

0:40:380:40:41

'you were cut adrift.

0:40:410:40:43

'Isolation and social death followed.

0:40:430:40:46

'One woman's story, confessed in her private letters to her mother,

0:40:490:40:53

'shows exactly how much socialising mattered.'

0:40:530:40:57

Sir John hated society especially at home,

0:40:570:41:03

and in particular

0:41:030:41:05

he disliked females.

0:41:050:41:08

Margaret Lady Stanley was married to a Cheshire Baronet

0:41:100:41:14

who refused to furnish the house and barred the door to guests.

0:41:140:41:19

You well know the very inhospitable nature of our house,

0:41:210:41:25

no friend, no social guest frequented it.

0:41:250:41:30

We lived for ourselves and for ourselves alone.

0:41:300:41:35

And though our fortune was considerable,

0:41:350:41:38

we lived obscurely, cheerlessly,

0:41:380:41:42

unbefriended and unbefriending.

0:41:420:41:45

Eventually Lady Stanley chose exile abroad rather than suffer any longer

0:41:450:41:52

the social exclusion she'd been forced to bear at home.

0:41:520:41:57

The example of Margaret Lady Stanley is more than

0:41:570:42:02

the story of one woman's misery in marriage.

0:42:020:42:05

What it shows is how established the convention of visiting and socialising at home had become.

0:42:050:42:12

So much so that if a husband denies all that to a wife,

0:42:120:42:16

it's a source of misery, it's the crushing of her autonomy in marriage,

0:42:160:42:21

and in her case, it's grounds for separation and ultimately divorce.

0:42:210:42:26

Latterly my health declined,

0:42:300:42:32

my spirits broken.

0:42:320:42:36

You see a proud woman crushed, brought low.

0:42:380:42:43

Her marriage was a kind of long social eclipse.

0:42:430:42:47

It's one of the saddest things I've ever read.

0:42:470:42:50

The way a house was organised and decorated told you all you needed to know about the status of the wife.

0:42:520:43:00

So pity the wife steamrollered by a husband's megalomania, but on a colossal scale.

0:43:000:43:07

Claydon House in Buckinghamshire is the folly of a nobleman

0:43:070:43:12

who speculated wildly on the stock market

0:43:120:43:15

and raised a pleasure dome.

0:43:150:43:16

Claydon proves that nobility is no guarantee

0:43:160:43:19

of tasteful restraint. Female subtlety went for naught.

0:43:190:43:24

# I want it all

0:43:240:43:27

# I want it all

0:43:270:43:29

# I want it all

0:43:290:43:32

# And want it now... #

0:43:320:43:34

This is a lavish,

0:43:350:43:37

even florid exhibition of wealth and sheer power.

0:43:370:43:41

Lord Verney, Rafe to his friends, wanted to compete with his nearest political rivals,

0:43:410:43:47

the mighty Grenvilles Of Stow.

0:43:470:43:49

And Verney took competition very seriously.

0:43:510:43:54

What you see today is just a quarter of the house he built.

0:43:540:43:59

This is a scale model of the house and I think you can really see

0:44:010:44:05

that it is palatial in scope.

0:44:050:44:09

This is the wing that we're in now

0:44:090:44:11

and, in fact, these two little windows...

0:44:110:44:14

That's the space here.

0:44:140:44:16

This seems to me an extraordinary, pompous architectural statement

0:44:160:44:22

of, well, hubris really.

0:44:220:44:24

And the level of ostentation only gets more flamboyant.

0:44:270:44:30

When I first came to this house I was stunned by the variety of different sorts of decoration.

0:44:300:44:36

There's high Palladian,

0:44:360:44:39

rococo

0:44:390:44:40

and, most exuberant, chinoiserie.

0:44:400:44:44

This exotic style was all the rage,

0:44:440:44:47

inspired by a fantasy of Chinese design and the mysterious East.

0:44:470:44:53

All mythical dragons, pagodas and imperial yellow.

0:44:530:44:58

But Rafe didn't just nod to China with a bit of silk, painted wallpaper and porcelain.

0:44:580:45:02

He made an eye-popping theme park.

0:45:020:45:06

It's as if Verney wanted to prove that he could have it all.

0:45:060:45:10

He didn't have to make a choice. He didn't have to show restraint.

0:45:100:45:14

Rafe lacked the good judgement to know what he could get away with -

0:45:140:45:19

the appropriate level of bling for his rank and bank balance.

0:45:190:45:23

Here, there isn't a recognition of the modern role of taste

0:45:250:45:29

and the modern role that a woman should play in a marriage.

0:45:290:45:33

This heiress who married Verney

0:45:360:45:38

was too weak to be a brake on his extravagance.

0:45:380:45:42

Eventually bankruptcy loomed.

0:45:430:45:46

We do know that his poor wife ended up selling off her jewels

0:45:460:45:50

to try and meet some of their debts and she died a broken woman.

0:45:500:45:55

The creditors descended on the house

0:45:550:45:57

and then poor Rafe, now absolutely destroyed, losing his wits,

0:45:570:46:02

hid in the hearse to escape the creditors.

0:46:020:46:05

How are the mighty fallen?

0:46:050:46:07

Claydon is a monument to male vanity.

0:46:090:46:13

It became Verney's mausoleum,

0:46:130:46:15

a chilly palace bereft of family feeling.

0:46:150:46:20

It was women who were turning houses into homes

0:46:230:46:26

because the architecture of the house was just a skeleton,

0:46:260:46:30

bare bones which women now expected to clothe with their own taste

0:46:300:46:34

and with their own hands, as a recent exhibition on quilts brought home to me.

0:46:340:46:40

I think that women have always used their craft skills

0:46:400:46:44

to demonstrate their virtue, to demonstrate their skill.

0:46:440:46:49

I think in the 18th century though there are an expanding range of exciting new crafts

0:46:490:46:54

that you can do just to show how varied your expertise is.

0:46:540:47:00

Quilts tend to made out of any old bits, remnants, rags that you've got lying about,

0:47:000:47:06

so probably this beautiful silk quilt was made out of old dresses, old furnishing fabric.

0:47:060:47:12

In a way, I think what these quilts offer is a female version of history.

0:47:120:47:18

A whole family's history might be remembered in the bits of clothes,

0:47:180:47:23

the bits of curtain that have gone into this beautiful, produced object.

0:47:230:47:28

This is quite a characteristic production, the map sampler.

0:47:310:47:35

You can get them actually printed up, all ready for you as a pattern

0:47:350:47:40

for you to copy over and stitch like mad,

0:47:400:47:43

get all the counties right.

0:47:430:47:45

So this is an expression of virtue

0:47:450:47:47

from a young girl but also her education,

0:47:470:47:51

her interest in geography and her patriotism of course.

0:47:510:47:54

But what is the most surprising thing for me about this beautiful production

0:47:540:47:59

if you come down to the bottom and discover it was made by

0:47:590:48:02

Ann Isabella Reader, aged 10 years.

0:48:020:48:06

Maybe a proud parent framed it and put it up on the wall.

0:48:060:48:09

I know I would have done.

0:48:090:48:11

I think these sorts of crafts that can be done by a group of women

0:48:130:48:17

or a group of sisters or a mother and daughter,

0:48:170:48:20

they're seen to unite women.

0:48:200:48:23

It's a kind of literacy of the needle, really.

0:48:230:48:25

It's expressing yourself through your embroidery

0:48:250:48:28

and through your sewing perhaps just as much as you might through writing.

0:48:280:48:33

If you want to appreciate the ultimate in arty-crafty femininity

0:48:340:48:39

come to this jewel of a cottage in Exmouth in Devon,

0:48:390:48:43

a house the likes of which you'll not see anywhere else in Britain.

0:48:430:48:47

Here we find not just a woman's touch, but an entire women's world.

0:48:470:48:51

The oestrogen is palpable.

0:48:510:48:54

This house is called A La Ronde and it was built

0:48:540:48:56

for two spinster cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter.

0:48:560:49:01

And I think it's incredibly unusual,

0:49:010:49:03

because in the 18th century, no woman could be a practising architect

0:49:030:49:07

but with just a little bit of help, it seems,

0:49:070:49:09

they designed this house

0:49:090:49:11

based on a church that they'd seen in Ravenna on their grand tour.

0:49:110:49:14

In the 18th century it was covered in thatch

0:49:140:49:18

and had honeysuckle tumbling all down it,

0:49:180:49:21

so it must have seemed like a magical cottage,

0:49:210:49:24

a bit like something from Hansel and Gretel.

0:49:240:49:26

But I see it rather more like a feminist haystack,

0:49:280:49:31

or a chapel really to amateur art.

0:49:310:49:34

It's amazing to me that this house was designed by two women.

0:49:360:49:41

What's great is they together seem to have broken the rules of formal architectural design.

0:49:410:49:48

They've thrown out the rule book and decided, "No, we won't have a formal parade of rooms,

0:49:480:49:53

"we're going to have our lovely house in the round,"

0:49:530:49:56

and instead of people going through one room after another,

0:49:560:50:00

more and more dignified, more and more stately,

0:50:000:50:03

here they can follow the sun around the house.

0:50:030:50:07

So I think it's an attempt to say,

0:50:070:50:09

"We're women, we're going to do things differently."

0:50:090:50:12

There's a glorious sense of movement in the house. You can keep flowing around,

0:50:140:50:18

following the sun as it goes round the house in the day.

0:50:180:50:21

It makes the house seem really playful actually

0:50:230:50:26

and as somewhere that would be a real pleasure to inhabit.

0:50:260:50:29

The Parminters seem to have used this house as

0:50:400:50:43

a kind of temple to the trophies that they bought back from their own ladies' grand tour.

0:50:430:50:48

But instead of huge marble statues,

0:50:480:50:50

they've got really lovely things like this,

0:50:500:50:53

which is a shellwork representation of architecture,

0:50:530:50:57

so it's kind of an 18th-century idea of a postcard,

0:50:570:51:00

but it's in three dimensions and made entirely from shells.

0:51:000:51:04

It's extraordinary to have such a wide diversity of crafts in one place.

0:51:080:51:13

These kind of things never usually survive in families.

0:51:130:51:17

But I think it must be because they were spinsters,

0:51:170:51:20

two ladies together, they decreed that the house had to pass down the female line,

0:51:200:51:25

so for years, for generations,

0:51:250:51:27

there were no men to say "let's get rid of all this awful stuff,"

0:51:270:51:31

and that's why it survives.

0:51:310:51:32

But any 18th-century lady with any claims to politeness

0:51:320:51:36

would have done something a little bit like this,

0:51:360:51:38

but perhaps not on this great scale.

0:51:380:51:41

I'd love to be able to get up to the gallery proper,

0:51:440:51:48

but you can't get any higher than this

0:51:480:51:50

because it's so fragile,

0:51:500:51:52

the shells are literally hanging by threads.

0:51:520:51:54

There's lots of conservation work that has to go on

0:51:540:51:57

so you can just get a glimpse really of this kind of magical,

0:51:570:52:01

and I must say barking mad, shellwork extravaganza up here.

0:52:010:52:08

You can imagine the sisters up here with their candles doing it on the long winter evenings.

0:52:080:52:13

"What shall we do now? Shall we go up and finish a bit of our shellwork?" "Yes, let's!"

0:52:130:52:18

Only a few ladies could shape architecture,

0:52:200:52:23

but women of all ranks toiled to leave some personal mark.

0:52:230:52:27

Even the smallest relics can have breath-taking power.

0:52:270:52:32

This is London's Foundling Hospital, where desperate mothers gave up their babies.

0:52:320:52:36

Each infant was identified by a number and a scrap of fabric.

0:52:360:52:41

These small pieces of textiles show how even the poorest of women

0:52:410:52:45

craved colour and used fashion to give added meaning to their lives.

0:52:450:52:50

When the foundling hospital took in babies,

0:52:520:52:54

when desperate mothers came and gave their babies to the hospital

0:52:540:52:58

because they'd been unable to look after them,

0:52:580:53:00

they left an identifying mark with each child,

0:53:000:53:03

which was very often a piece snipped from the child's clothing.

0:53:030:53:08

And so here we have the most beautiful flowered lawn.

0:53:080:53:14

It's so rich and vivid, you get a sense of

0:53:140:53:18

that mother's interest in colour and how she wanted to prettify her baby.

0:53:180:53:24

Absolutely beautiful kind of crimson, maroon and a lovely, lovely turquoise flower.

0:53:240:53:30

The mother gave the piece of clothing

0:53:300:53:33

and she kept a counterpart so that she would be able to identify her child

0:53:330:53:38

if she was ever able to raise enough money to reclaim her.

0:53:380:53:42

Tragically, only 152 of the 16,000 babies taken in

0:53:450:53:51

in the 1740s and '50s were reclaimed.

0:53:510:53:54

Really these books represent the ghosts of little girls and little boys,

0:53:570:54:01

all lost to history.

0:54:010:54:03

This was the mark of a little boy christened Charles,

0:54:070:54:12

11th of February, 1767,

0:54:120:54:15

and the token his mother has left with him

0:54:150:54:18

is something I'm sure which was of her own making.

0:54:180:54:21

It's a little piece of patchwork,

0:54:210:54:23

and it's cut in half.

0:54:230:54:25

So she left this piece with him and took the other piece away with her.

0:54:250:54:32

And this is one of the very, very few happy endings

0:54:340:54:39

amongst the foundling children in that this mother did reclaim her child.

0:54:390:54:44

So I know from doing a bit of research,

0:54:440:54:47

this little boy, christened Charles, became Benjamin,

0:54:470:54:51

but he was reclaimed by his mother Sarah, on 10th June, 1775.

0:54:510:54:59

So that's eight years later.

0:54:590:55:01

So eight long years his mother must have toiled.

0:55:010:55:05

I'm sure she would have looked every night at her other half, her piece,

0:55:050:55:09

something that she had made.

0:55:090:55:11

I think it's absolutely miraculous that something a woman made

0:55:130:55:18

could be her way back to her child.

0:55:180:55:21

A scrap of textile may look like a mundane rag,

0:55:230:55:26

but it has the power to move us still.

0:55:260:55:29

It carries women's history down through time, a material memory.

0:55:290:55:35

Georgian women of all ranks left eloquent traces on the landscape...

0:55:370:55:41

if you know where to look.

0:55:410:55:43

This is the Lloyd's Building, one of the most remarkable creations of our time.

0:55:430:55:48

But in this futuristic palace of finance, a most unlikely place,

0:55:480:55:53

I was delighted to discover that a Georgian woman I have studied so long

0:55:530:55:57

has left an exquisite inheritance.

0:55:570:56:00

I'm leaving Blade Runner behind here

0:56:020:56:05

and moving in to the late 18th century...

0:56:050:56:10

..to a room which belonged to the idealistic heroine of my tale of taste. Young Sophia, Lady Shelburne.

0:56:120:56:19

This was her drawing room, all neoclassical prettiness,

0:56:190:56:23

designed for her by Robert Adam.

0:56:230:56:25

It's so coveted today as a design classic, that it was taken down,

0:56:250:56:31

literally brick by brick, and reassembled

0:56:310:56:33

here in the Lloyd's Building to be used for committee meetings.

0:56:330:56:37

It's an interesting question whether somebody's personality really is written on the wall of their houses,

0:56:370:56:44

but I do get a strong feeling of Lady Shelburne's rather virtuous, high-minded taste

0:56:440:56:50

in a room like this.

0:56:500:56:51

Lady Shelburne died tragically young, just 26.

0:56:530:56:57

She left behind a distraught husband, two infants

0:56:570:57:02

and glimpses like this of her appreciation of style.

0:57:020:57:06

It's a certain irony, I think, that what was this perfect epitome of femininity, polite femininity,

0:57:080:57:16

then became the place where the Lloyd's underwriters had their committee meetings.

0:57:160:57:21

Although I suppose it tells us how enduring ideas of Georgian good manners are.

0:57:210:57:28

Such that, even here in this modern, futuristic building,

0:57:280:57:31

the gentlemen of Lloyd's probably felt much more comfortable

0:57:310:57:35

with the Georgian architecture than with the post-modern outside.

0:57:350:57:39

Georgian women had laid claim to taste and the new role of interior decorator,

0:57:400:57:46

creating the aesthetic of their era.

0:57:460:57:49

And because the Georgian look still sells,

0:57:490:57:52

they shape our aesthetics even now.

0:57:520:57:54

Next, I'll show you how the Georgians protected their homes,

0:57:570:58:01

both from the threats that prowled outside their doors

0:58:010:58:04

and also from the enemies that lurked within.

0:58:040:58:07

Like us, one of their greatest fears was losing the roof over their head.

0:58:070:58:11

They knew that home went hand in hand,

0:58:110:58:15

not just with status and stability,

0:58:150:58:18

but with contentment.

0:58:180:58:20

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:58:380:58:41

E-mail [email protected]

0:58:410:58:44

The British obsession with beautifying our homes is not a new phenomenon - it began with a vengeance in the Georgian era. In this second programme of the series historian Amanda Vickery - on a journey from stately home to pauper's attic - reveals how 'taste' became the buzzword of the age 300 years ago and gave women a new outlet for their creativity, raising their status in the home as a consequence. But with it came new anxieties about getting it right.


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