Georgian Illuminations Back

At 5pm on a weekday in November between Bonfire Night and Diwali, before an evening spent wandering amongst the glittering Christmas trees of Covent Garden and ambulating under the clusters of 300,000 low-energy twinkling LED lights forming Regent Street’s otherworldly ‘Spirits of Christmas’, I found myself on Lincoln’s Inn Fields staring up at the closing Sir John Soane’s Museum. Upon its facade danced a light installation by contemporary artist Nayan Kulkarni, colours changing and geometric patterns metamorphosing; the product of a year’s research, and drawing on Soane’s own approaches to architecture and light, it felt perfectly in dialogue with the space it was inspired by, and the exhibition I had just seen inside.

Greeted by its title, Georgian Illuminations, hung in front of a large mirror in yellow neon letters, I moved through two rooms curated by Dr Melanie Doderer-Winkler and Dr Louise Stewart, dedicated to the light shows of the period; on display were artistic depictions and material remnants of lamps, glowing transparent paintings, fireworks, and temporary architecture central to Georgian life, especially from the 1760s, in and on its parks, gardens, streets, and buildings. The supplementary resources to Georgian Illuminations were impressive – the exhibition guide was an informative and beautiful dark blue and yellow booklet punctuated by flashes of pink, while the exhibition’s companion materials online provided details about conservation and guided a reader through the histories of both Georgian fireworks and artificial light in the Georgian era; I found the integrated video of Ditmar Bollaert and Els Prevenier’s Feux Pyriques, a film of the machinery of a restored c.1820 firework cabinet in action at the University of Antwerp in 2021, especially charming. Whether a reader is leaving Georgian Illuminations, anticipating a visit, or simply curious about the topic, the exhibition’s website is a fantastic resource, packed full of gorgeous images and plenty of fun facts.

Immersed in the physical exhibition itself, the overwhelming first impression was of the scale and spectacle of these illuminations. Some formed a central part of national celebrations, including military victories: on the orders of George II, for instance, a firework display in Green Park commemorated the end of the War of Austrian Succession on 27th April 1749, accompanied by Handel’s specially commissioned Music for the Royal Fireworks. Pressing a switch on the side of the case beneath caused the coloured translucent paper fireworks in one representation of this event, a c.1749 hand-coloured engraving by Paul Angier (after P. Brookes) entitled A perspective view of the building for the fireworks in the Green Park, taken from the reservoir, to glow – a lovely interactive touch.

John Fairburn Jr’s technicolour commemorative Grand National Jubilee in Commemoration of Peace August 1st 1814 offered a glimpse into a comparable event taking place in the latter half of the period, coinciding with the visit of the Allied Sovereigns, the leaders whose countries had defeated Napoleon. Mostly free, very widely attended, and spread over three parks, the attractions were mostly free and very widely attended; the 1815 hand-coloured etching with engraving reproduces the fireworks, the Jubilee hot air balloon, the royal booth (and so on). An anonymous 1814 hand-coloured etching showed the glittering, allegorical Temple of Concord revealed to music and fireworks at the climax of the celebrations – designed by Jeffrey Wyatt, with the transparencies provided by Royal Academicians Henry Howard, Robert Smirke, George Dawe, and Thomas Stothard, and powered by a compact steam engine, it ended the noisiness of the Castle of Oppression (seen in another 1814 hand-coloured etching and aquatint by Thomas Palser), whose painted cloth walls were swiftly torn away. All of this, of course, was overhasty, as Napoleon was not finally defeated until Waterloo in June 1815. As was to be expected, a transparency of Napoleon shot at by Field Marshal Blücher at R. Ackermann’s shop on the Strand marked this later, momentous occasion, as recorded in Thomas Rowlandson’s 1815 hand-coloured etching and aquatint – again drawing, according to The Times, a huge crowd.

Other illuminations were the focal points of private celebrations, such as the much-discussed 1774 nuptials of Edward Smith Stanley and Lady Elisabeth Hamilton (the subject of the The Maid of the Oaks, a comedy premiering later that year at Drury Lane Theatre), featuring pastoral tableaux organised by David Garrick, an Ionic portico with four bright pink, translucent columns, four pyramids of light, and the largest, albeit temporary, space Robert Adam ever created. Two 1780 etchings/engravings of this Fête Champêtre by James Caldwall and Charles Grignon reconstruct the inside of the pavilion’s ‘Ball-room’ and ‘Supper-room’, with the latter hidden until the dramatic lifting of the curtains between the columns in the ballroom.

Illuminations were also a feature of royal events, such as the 25th birthday of George III in 1763, evidenced by a design from the same year from the office of Robert and James Adam for temporary buildings with inset transparencies and brought to life in a depiction by Giovanni Battista Cipriani. Queen Charlotte and her court kept the celebrations secret, with the king arriving late on the evening of his birthday to find Buckingham House in darkness; when the shutters towards the gardens were opened, the illumination was revealed and orchestral and choral music resounded, to the king’s astonishment. Elements from this birthday surprise were reused at a later event – as observed from Sir William Chambers’ ground plan in pen, pencil, and yellow wash for a pavilion erected in the park of Richmond house for the visit of Christian VII, King of Denmark to George III in September 1768. Even on a smaller scale, we get the sense of a gargantuan structure, with huge windows in the ballroom through which to watch the firework display. Whilst this pavilion was encircled by a ditch ‘to keep out the populace’, royal illuminations were not always only for the wealthy: an 1836 handbill on display publicises a non-exclusive celebration of William IV’s 71st birthday at the legendary 11-acre Vauxhall Gardens, including fireworks (which, it is promised, will ‘surpass anything ever witnessed in this country’), a series of lit walkways – the New Italian Walk is to be transformed into a ‘complete Fairy Land’ – and, more unusually, a twelve metre high St George and the Dragon composed of coloured lamps.

General Illumination Nights also lit up towns and cities, attracting great numbers and involving everyone in the royal and military celebrations. From cheap candles and rushlights to back-lit transparencies, every household and institution was expected to participate, with the decorations often treated as a competition by newspapers; designs for buildings including the Royal Academy of Arts and the London houses of the Earl of Hopetoun and Sir Joseph Banks were on display. The enthusiastic response to General Illumination Nights indicates how dark it would normally have been day-to-day – or rather night-to-night – before bright public street lighting; gas street lighting appeared in 1807, electric street lighting in 1878. Indeed, the long eighteenth century was preoccupied with the subjects of darkness and night, producing poems from Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea’s ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’ (1713) to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1742-1745), one of the most widely read of the period. The contrast between darkness and brightness at Vauxhall was titillating, with its notorious ‘Dark Walks’ at the far end known to be the site of many an amorous encounter.

In many ways, my experience of the Soane’s Museum itself might have run counter to the wishes of the house’s former owner. I circulated the house just before closing time in winter, as daylight was fading; his refusal to admit visitors in ‘wet or dirty weather’ has been taken by some (such as Helen Dorey) to reflect his views on the careful regulation of light, believed by Soane to be a vital component of the architectural experience. But two rare 1814 linen luminous transparencies celebrating the defeat of Napoleon, located in the Foyle Space away from the main exhibition rooms and illuminated on bespoke lightboxes, charged the path through the darkening museum with a quasi-gravitational force, bringing to mind a somewhat juxtaposing, though equally, fitting quotation from G. K. Chesterton: ‘all architecture is great architecture after sunset; perhaps architecture is really a nocturnal art, like the art of fireworks’. Nevertheless, the exhibition case dedicated to Soane demonstrated that he could handle the demands of nocturnal architecture. As Architect and Surveyor to the Bank of England from 1788-1833, it was his responsibility to oversee the patriotic illumination of the building for national events, and several of the designs for the painted transparencies he commissioned, created by artists including Peltro William Tomkins and William Hamilton, were on show. Joseph Michael Gandy’s 1798 Volunteers’ Dinner in the Rotunda also illustrated one of Soane’s impressive illuminated interiors with candles and multicoloured oil lamps, on this occasion created for a dinner for the Bank of England’s Volunteer Corps, and when fully realised, his office’s 1809 design for the external illumination of the Bank of England for George III’s Golden Jubilee, with lamps, flaming urns on twisted tripods, and glowing ornaments including Star of the Garter, must also have been magnificent.

The true joy of the exhibition, however, was to be found not in the sheer affective power of the period’s light shows, but in the exuberance of the ephemera and satire on display, alongside the small, captivating details of the exhibition’s paintings and plans. The presentation of Robert Blemmell Schnebbelie’s 1821 watercolour on laid paper of the exterior of Drury Lane Theatre, for example, was emblematic of this curatorial tendency: its caption drew attention to the last lamplighter descending down a ladder in the shadows, one of the several men each day lighting hundreds of these lamps, which were filled individually, fixed to a mesh frame, and linked by sulphur-dipped flax threads acting as fuses. The exhibition case included a blown-up image of this detail, placed beside the watercolour itself, to ensure it was not missed. Further, a viewer was consistently reminded that scraps of paper from bills to souvenirs remain as the only physical traces of breathtaking events long since passed. A paper peep show of a Vauxhall Juvenile Fete stood out; regular events from 1821, these were aimed at children under twelve containing illuminations, fireworks, acrobats, music, and animal acts. Bending down and looking through the arches revealed a charming prospect of a Vauxhall walkway in miniature. So too was the inclusion of a surviving cobalt glass lamp from c.1840 (multicoloured lamps were used from the 1780s), with ‘VAUXHALL’ carved in relief around the base and a whale oil and textile wick, unexpectedly moving. Lamps appear in their thousands in the art surrounding the viewer at Georgian Illuminations: ‘Strik[ing] the eye with sweet surprize’, according to a stanza on Vauxhall lamps in The London Magazine, April 1737, ‘Adam was not more inchanted, | When he saw the sun first rise.’ To be encouraged to focus on one provoked a disorienting contemplation of the many.

Equally as enchanting were the copper and silver season tickets for Vaxuhall, first issued in 1737 and costing one guinea – Handel and Hogarth both possessed one. The earlier design depicted the Greek poet Arion riding a dolphin, a nod to the power of music and demonstrative of the persistence of Vauxhall’s myth-making down to the finest of details; the later ticket sported two female figures, likely the personifications of music and poetry, inscribed with the Latin Vereor ne Ultimum, ‘let this not be the last time’, and subscriber’s name on the reverse, one of the estimated ten million who passed through the gardens between 1740 and 1840. And Vauxhall catering, at the time one of the largest operations of its kind in England as most Georgians did not dine in public, left behind assorted c.1790s-c.1850 crockery and a bill of fare advertising various foodstuffs – from chicken, to jelly, to heart cake, to Indonesian arrack. These were pasted on lampposts so waiters would not overcharge, but garden-goers still complained about the extortionate prices and paltry portions: in an 1820 hand-coloured etching of Vauxhall Gardens attributed to Isaac Robert Cruikshank and/or Thomas Rowlandson, for example, rural schoolmaster and pastor Doctor Syntax holds up an expensive, skilfully carved slice of ham to a candle as the light shines through (the ham at Vauxhall was often sliced so thinly that it was joked a newspaper could be read through it). 

‘Notwithstanding certain gibes and sarcasms … the result proves such as to surpass the expectation of all who witnessed the scene’, begins the double-columned text filling one commemorative print for the 1814 Grand National Jubilee. At Georgian Illuminations, these very gibes and sarcasms were not only there to be withstood, but to be delighted by. Though it might seem perplexing that these awe-inspiring illuminations could prompt ridicule and derision, it was frequently the case that things ended not with a bang but with a whimper: the Temple of Concord, costing the extortionate price of £37,574 8s 3d, was eventually sold for an embarrassing £200 as scrap, and though eventually a success, one of the initial designs presented to Queen Charlotte by the office of Robert and James Adam as her birthday surprise for King George proved too ambitious, with the Queen having to scale down and bear the costs from her (comparatively) modest allowance. Even the 1749 festivities in Green Park to commemorate the end of the War of Austrian Succession had their fair share of disaster. Handel’s music was drowned out by cannonfire. An hour into the display the northern pavilion burst into flames, detonating many of the stored explosives. The rain prevented many of the other fireworks from going off – the Duke of Richmond bought the unignited squibs, Catherine Wheels, and rockets to produce an event for the visiting Duke of Moderna a fortnight later. Contempt and terror were also frequently elicited by illuminations, for the reality was that these violent delights could also have violent ends – on the night of the 1814 Grand National Jubilee, John Nash’s colourful bridge in the chinoiserie style, commissioned by the Prince Regent and illuminated by the new technology of the bright-burning gas light and the fireworks or ‘rocket batteries’ set off around it, caught fire two hours into the display, killing a bystander and the lamplighter. The Temple of Concord could not rescue the Jubilee from chaos.

Have you seen a rocket fly?

You would swear it pierced the sky:

It but reach’d the middle air,

Bursting into pieces there . . .

Thus, should I attempt to climb,

Treat you in a style sublime,

Such a rocket is my Muse: 

Should I lofty numbers choose,

Ere I reach’d Parnassus’ top,

I should burst and bursting drop . . .

So writes Jonathan Swift in ‘Epistle to A Lady, Who desired the Author to Make Verses on Her, in the Heroick Stile’. Even as early as 1733, the extended metaphor of the rocket encapsulates the bathetic gravity always threatening to pull eighteenth-century aspirations down from the mountains and the skies. Spectacular, disappointing; tributes, hazards; objects of awe, subjects of mockery – Georgian Illuminations at the Sir John Soane’s Museum successfully exhibited, in all their jostling and juxtaposed glory, such contemporary attitudes towards the light shows emerging out of and extending beyond the  ‘Age of Enlightenment’.