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EVERY day some 12,000 people visit the British Museum, largely to gaze at the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone and, one of the museum’s top attractions, the Lindow Man, popularly known as Pete Marsh. Pete lived in the lst century AD and died from blows to the head and garrotting and his is the oldest face to have survived from ancient Britain, preserved by peat-bog acids.

This year the museum expects visitor numbers to swell as it lays on a series of events to celebrate its 250th anniversary; London 1753 is the catalogue of an exhibition about life in London in the year the act of parliament was passed founding the world’s first national public museum.
By the middle of the 18th century London was the largest city in the world and from St James’s to Gin Lane it was a city of opposites; from extreme wealth to grinding poverty, from philanthropy to crime. The wealth gap between those who had everything and those who had nothing was viciously contrasted.

The poor turned to Methodism or to gin and young black slaves were the day’s fashion accessories. Through 350 fully detailed and provenanced prints, drawings, through trade cards and bills, to watercolours, and jewellery, this is the London of Hogarth, Fielding and Dr Johnson, of rococo design and of watchmaking. It is the metropolis of the luxury goods enjoyed by wealthy Londoners including Chelsea porcelain and exquisite silks woven in Spitalfields by workers who rioted against their pitiful pay, while Hogarth’s lifetime gold season ticket to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens contrasts with the sad foundling tokens left by mothers with their babies at the Foundling Hospital.

The story is told in essays by the late Roy Porter, Celina Fox and most particularly by Sheila O’Connell – assistant keeper in the BM’s Department of Prints and Drawings and author of ,i>The Popular Print in England – in her chapter Curious and Entertaining – Prints of London and Londoners. Included here is an engraving advertising the medicinal wares of Dicey & Co, of Cheapside, makers of Daffy’s Elixir for “such unfortunate persons who by neglect of themselves, lie under the miserable circumstances of virulent runnings, old gleets, cordees, buboes, shankers and tumifyed testicles.” Plate 2.21 on page 117 details a painted enamel, gold, silver, glass and rock-cystal piece, this being the Anti-Gallican Society President’s Badge (1750-5). This society was founded in 1745 “to oppose the insidious arts of the French nation” and was active for 50 years. The Society’s arms show St George on a white horse spearing a shield with the fleur-de-lis of France. A little something for President Bush, perhaps?

This is a finely detailed catalogue to an excellent exhibition.