by Melanie Doderer-Winkler. Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, dist. by Yale University Press, December 2013. 270 p. ill. ISBN 9780300186420 (cl.), $75.00.
Reviewed May 2014
Virginia Kerr, Digital Program Manager, Center for Research Libraries, firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an attractive and thoroughly researched study of the ambitious temporary architectural installations from Britain’s long eighteenth century. Little has been published on the subject; scholars have focused on historical precedents including the “festival culture” of Renaissance Italy and masques staged in Stuart England by Inigo Jones, as well as contemporary spectacles at Louis XIV’s French court. But in Georgian and Regency England, as this book amply illustrates, huge sums were spent employing noted architects, painters, and teams of craftsmen to construct ephemeral settings for galas and historical commemorations. Garden structures were illuminated with fireworks and thousands of colored lamps. The walls of temporary ballrooms and music pavilions came alive with classical scenes on large painted cloth transparencies illuminated by various techniques borrowed from the stage.
The author, whose research originated with a graduate thesis, has scoured an impressive variety of primary source materials, quoting at length from diaries and early newspapers. She also provides extensive visuals from drawings and prints in the Royal Collection, the Soane Museum, the British Museum, and the archives of the Bank of England and notable families. The illustrations are well chosen and presented in support of the narrative; most are in color, with thorough captions. Enlarged details are attractively featured as overleaf plates.
While generally clearly written, the extent of detail included for each commissioned event—including attributions, costs, and description of decorative and entertainment elements—somewhat interrupts the narrative flow. This makes the book most suitable for a specialist, even though there is content of value to many disciplines including historians of architecture, gardens, theater, and eighteenth-century society, plus anecdotes of interest to the general reader.
Catalog entries on each project and also the major artists (cross-indexing connections) would have significantly benefitted scholars. Instead, details fill each thematic chapter and extend into endnotes accompanied by an extensive bibliography which includes numerous primary sources and early histories.
With a more comprehensive overview, the author could have delved further into the value placed on the “experience of visual sumptuousness” in this period. Interesting points briefly suggested in the introduction include: the respect shown by important architects and painters (including founders of the Royal Academy) for ephemeral commissions; the integration of drama, poetry, and music with visual installations; the rising popularity of “commercial places of amusement” such as Vauxhall and Ranelagh gardens; and the relative democratization of galas in England, where lavish entertainment was often hosted by nobility because of stringent royal funds compared to the French court.