Did the elegance outweigh the decadence?’ Lucy Worsley on the series
Here’s a question for you. When was Britain at its most elegant and most decadent, its most stylish and its most radical?
I’d argue that it was the decade of the Regency, between 1811 and 1820. It was one of those rare moments – a bit like the 1960s – when enormous changes in culture and society all came together in a big burst of energy.
The battle of Waterloo was won. London was completely re-designed. Turner and Constable were painting, the waltz was introduced, and Jane Austen and Lord Byron were there to write it all down.
Our new series ‘Elegance and Decadence, The Age of the Regency’ starts with the man at the top, the naughty Prince Regent himself. He grew up at Kew Palace, one of the five royal buildings looked after by Historic Royal Palaces, where I work as Chief Curator.
Drunken, increasingly fat, and pretty incompetent as a ruler, George had an endless procession of matronly mistresses. But nevertheless he had a terrific sense of style – something shared by his most creative and artistic subjects.
Between January and June 2011, I had a wonderful time exploring life during his Regency: learning to waltz, riding in a mail coach, flying in a hot air balloon over the city of Bath, and spending a day living the high life of Regency dandy.
Our series covers George’s royal buildings at Brighton and Windsor Castle, but also the great works of art being produced by Sir Thomas Lawrence and J.M .W. Turner. Waterloo Bridge, the Elgin Marbles, Jane Austen’s house at Chawton and the spa resort of Leamington Spa all get a look-in.
But it’s not just about high society: we also visit the mills of Manchester, the fields of Peterloo where peaceful workers calling for Parliamentary Reform were slaughtered in a massacre as awful as Tiananmem Square, and the cottage where the ‘Peasant Poet’ John Clare provided a voice for the rural dispossessed.
The Regency was an age of exuberance and creativity, but also of excess and deprivation. Did the elegance outweigh the decadence?
You’ll have to watch to make up your own mind!