Exclusive: Revolving door at townhouse as Georgian all the rage

Garry Fearn, Senior House Steward, cleaning chairs in the Dining Room.
Garry Fearn, Senior House Steward, cleaning chairs in the Dining Room.
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FOR many historians, it is an era that represents the birth of modern Britain with the emergence of both the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

But the flamboyance and elegance of the Georgians have long been a neglected part of Britain’s history, with a focus firmly placed on the later Victorian age.

Yet that oversight appears to be changing with a renaissance in popularity of the 18th century society.

Historical experts have claimed the public are turning to the often ostentatious Georgian period as they look to escape the economic doom and gloom enveloping modern Britain.

A raft of period dramas on both television and cinema screens, from Keira Knightley’s The Duchess to the BBC’s hugely-popular series Garrow’s Law, are also heightening interest in the era.

Hannah Greig, who works in York University’s history department, specialises in 18th century Britain and was a historical adviser on The Duchess movie.

She claimed that the period represented Britain’s emergence as a global force to be reckoned with as international trade routes were being developed. Dr Greig said: “The Georgian period was a time of incredible and dynamic change. For many historians, it is the moment that modern society in Britain was born.

“If you look back to previous times of economic crisis such as the 1920s and 1930s, there has been a rise in popularity of the Georgian period as it provides some sort of escapism for people.

“We turn to the glamour and ostentatiousness of the Georgians as a release from the doom and gloom of everyday life.”

Fairfax House, which lays claim to being the finest Georgian townhouse in England, is anticipating a record number of visitors this year.

More than 25,000 visitors are expected to have gone through the doors of the historic property in Castlegate in York by the end of 2011, a 10 per cent increase on last year and a 20 per cent rise on 2009.

To capitalise on the growing popularity of the Georgian period, the first formal education programme is being launched. Fairfax House’s director, Hannah Phillip, is writing to primary schools across the city to invite groups of pupils to learn more about the property’s colourful history.

As part of the school visits, volunteers will wear period costume and assume the roles of characters from the house’s past, including members of the Fairfax family as well as servants and domestic staff. A new recruitment drive is also being launched to sign up new volunteers to cope with the surge in interest in the Georgian era. Fairfax House already boasts 150-strong team of volunteers who are from as far afield as Barnsley, Wetherby and Harrogate.

But there has been a shift in recent years from the traditional recruiting ground of the older sections of society, with university students and younger couples expressing an interest in becoming volunteers at Fairfax House.

A training programme is being developed with the first intake of potential new volunteers due to take part in eight sessions to learn about the property’s past from February next year.

Ms Phillip said: “The Georgian era has often been overshadowed by the Victorian period, but this really does appear to be changing.

“People want to escape the problems of the world, and the Georgian period gives them the opportunity to do just that.

“It was a time of elegance and flamboyance, and there were so many important aspects to it. It was not just about the society, there were major developments in science and technology as well as health, hygiene and food – things were happening right across the board.

She added: “A lot of what happened in the Victorian era and the subsequent decades is firmly rooted in the Georgian period, and it is wonderful to think more and more people are finding out the importance of that time.”

The influence of the Georgian period is now being showcased in leading venues across the country.

A new exhibition featuring some of London’s leading ladies from the Georgian period opened at the National Portrait Gallery in October.

It is the first exhibition devoted to the era’s actresses and features 53 portraits depicting the likes of Sarah Siddons and Lavinia Fenton.

Window on life in the past

LYING within sight of York’s famous Clifford’s Tower, Fairfax House is an embodiment of what life would have been like in Georgian Britain.

It has become one of the city’s major attractions, providing an insight into life in a townhouse in the 18th century.

The property was created in 1762 as a dowry for Anne Fairfax, the only surviving child of Viscount Fairfax.

Since then, Fairfax House has been used as a gentlemen’s club, a cinema and a dancehall throughout the intervening centuries.

The property was saved from decay and returned to its former glory by the York Civic Trust, which finished a major renovation in 1984 before the house was opened as a museum showcase for the Georgian period.

The profile of Fairfax House has been heightened with a series of successful exhibitions which have been staged since director Hannah Phillip arrived at the property two years ago, including this year’s Gilding the Lily which looked at the Georgians’ fascination with flowers.