Magazine article The Spectator

City of Contrasts

Magazine article The Spectator

City of Contrasts

Article excerpt

London, 1753

British Museum until 23 November

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the British Museum was founded by an Act of Parliament, the first national public museum in the world. The London in which it stood was the largest city in the Western world, a thriving centre for international trade with a population of 700,000. It was a centre, too, of artistic excellence, with men of the calibre of Hogarth, Dr Johnson, David Garrick and Thomas Chippendale demonstrating their various rare talents at full throttle.

The 18th century was a high point in the capital's history, and yet there were huge and very visible discrepancies between rich and poor. As Casanova said, 'In London, everything is easy to him who has money and is not afraid of spending it.' Those who were not so fortunate sought oblivion in cheap gin - 'drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence, straw for nothing', as the saying went.

This city of extremes and contrasts is now celebrated in a fascinating exhibition entitled London, 1753 at the BM. It is mounted in the galleries devoted to Prints and Drawings for that is what comprise the majority of the 300 or so exhibits, and at first glance the display might seem a trifle dusty and scholarly. It is, in fact, the reverse, animated by strange and moving collections of objects. Take, for example, the foundling tokens left by mothers to identify their children. One is a bone fish, a gambling token. Another is the clipped half of a silver shilling from the reign of Edward VI (i.e. 1547-53). A third is an enamelled bottle ticket marked 'Ale'. Each suggests the most poignant story. It is perhaps not by chance that the exhibited copy of Dr Johnson's great Dictionary lies open at the page defining 'libation'.

Elsewhere are two groups of porcelain figures, one from the factory at Bow, the other from Chelsea, produced in emulation of the fashionable Chinese porcelain imported by the East India Company. I particularly liked the Bow figure of a rat-catcher and the Chelsea fortune teller group, done after Watteau. Another group of the Chinese ware itself, including colourful snuff bottles, is so assembled to remind us of the objects on the mantle-piece in Hogarth's famous satiric print cycle 'Marriage a la mode'. These kind of cross-references and connections bring the exhibition to life and make sense of its accumulation of objects. …

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