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Architecture & design

Dazzling displays and Georgian extravaganzas

— July 2014

Article read level: Academic

Associated media

Anon., A View of the Temple of Concord, Hand-coloured etching, 1814, British Museu.

Lavish and spectacular decoration was part of every Georgian celebration and public entertainment

Magnificent Entertainments, Temporary Architecture for Georgian Festivals, by Melanie Doderer-Winkler

Time destroys irrationally. Our picture of the past is built from what is left; it is not always the best or the worst and certainly not that intended to be temporary that survives. But with this study Doderer-Winkler's painstaking research pieces together an image of an impressive range of temporary decorations and structures for transitory events and celebrations, showing the extraordinary rich detail that does survive. She has tracked down original designs, eye-witness accounts from scrapbooks, letters, journals, newspaper reports, commemorative prints and, in some instances, rare survivals of these short-lived decorations themselves.

Beginning with the lavish celebrations for royalty and spectacles given by nobility, Doderer-Winkler paints a vivid picture of, among other events, the original premier of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks in Green Park on 27 April 1749 to celebrate the Peace of Aix-La-Chapelle. For this event the Franco-Italian stage designer, Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni, created a 125-metre-long classical temple from wood, canvas and plaster, hiding the necessary hardware for the fireworks. Servandoni drew his sword on the Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, the main coordinator of the event, when part of it burnt down.

Allied to stage and interior design as well as fine art sculpture and painting, these temporary works were often frequently designed and painted by Royal Academicians, among them Robert Adam and Sir John Soane, indicating their willingness, and that of artists, to work in areas beyond the fine arts.

Sculptures were made in plaster. Paintings were on a colossal scale. Painted both front and back, they were transparencies, a technique enabling a rendition of a faux marble bas-relief to burst into colour when lit from behind. Used for ephemeral occasions, transparencies were not themselves transient, as descriptions of the commercial public pleasure gardens at Vauxhall make clear.

Vauxhall Gardens, established before Charles II's Restoration in 1660, would remain open for 200 years. While much of its architecture was not temporary, it was redecorated regularly, changing the style of the gardens' main structure, the rotunda, from rococo to neo-classical and even, at one point, into a Hindu temple. But Vauxhall displayed transparencies both for one-night galas and longer-term decorative displays. Often these transparencies had debuted elsewhere first, such as one by William Hamilton painted for  the Bank of England in 1789 to celebrate His Majesty, George III's recovery from his first serious bout of what is now thought to have been porphyria.

If Vauxhall Gardens' transparencies were impressive, at a time when artificial light was precious and sparingly used, its illuminations were legendary and never failed to impress first-time visitors.

But much more than the gardens were illuminated: throughout the Napoleonic wars illumination nights were part of national celebrations. Every building of importance and many private residences were fully lit by hundreds of oil lamps fixed to mesh frames, forerunners of our present-day Christmas illuminations. While members of the nobility commissioned spectacular transparencies and illuminations, specialist tradesmen offered ready-made decorations and a wide range of variegated lamps for sale or hire so the general public could join in and every small lane, alley or court was lit.

An integral part of the aristocratic, rich visual culture was the art of the ‘table decker’. Tables were ornamented with flowers, real and artificial, sculptural figures and inedible architectural creations made out of powdered glass, biscuit dough, wax, sand, textiles and cardboard. Ingenious sand paintings were created by skilfully applying coloured sugar, sand, marble dust and ground glass in designs that framed elaborate epergnes. Ballroom floors were chalked with elaborate coloured patterns that were literally danced away or, as with the sand painting, shaken off the tablecloths at the end of the night.

While the structures and decorations that Doderer-Winkler chronicles were temporary, many of the phenomena she describes have lasted longer. Displays showed political allegiances or, as with those of the publisher Rudolph Ackermans' transparencies, political propaganda and satire. Displayed on the frontage of his premises in the Strand were massive renditions of Thomas Rowlandson’s  work. Ackerman's systematic use of satirical, free and public transparencies was unique for his time. Self-promotion and commercialization are seen in transparencies that copy paintings made for display in the Royal Academy, and in the sale of commemorative prints.

Early forms of marquee, made from waterproof oilcloth, may have answered the problem of the weather. With the development of hire tents, however,  great architects ceased being involved with these decorative transitory events and the artistic individuality of the decorations diminished. This study reveals Georgian culture to have been rich in visual stimulation. With great imagination it found ways to decorate festivities floor-to-ceiling. It must have dazzled, the transient nature adding a frisson to magical nights.

Magnificent Entertainments, Temporary Architecture for Georgian Festivals  by Melanie Doderer-Winkler is published by The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Yale University Press 2013. 320pp., fully illustrated, £40.00. ISBN 978-0300186420


Clare Finn
Art historian and conservator

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