Celebrity in 18th-Century London

Stella Tillyard asks what fame meant to individuals and the wider public of  Georgian England, and considers how much this has in common with today’s celebrity culture.

In the last decade many historians and commentators have become fascinated by the apparent similarities between the eighteenth century and our own times. The free-wheeling commercial development of the Georgian era, its unabashed enjoyment of consumption of all kinds, the importance of print culture in everyday life; all these seem to be precursors of our own day. So too does its obsessive interest in all kinds of fame and the diffusion of what we now call a culture of celebrity. Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now, celebrity appears to have been made in the eighteenth century and in particular in London, with its dozens of newspapers and print shops, its crowds and coffee-houses, theatres, exhibitions, spectacles, pleasure gardens and teeming pavements.

In the delight at recognizing ourselves in the mirror that the past seems to hold up, we have perhaps forgotten to ask a few pertinent questions. Are we gazing at ourselves, or at something altogether different? Are we forgetting to look past our own image in the glass to that other picture that lies there, half obscured, refracted through our present, but perhaps still traceable?

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