The Georgian period was the first great age of celebrity culture. Georgians liked to be sociable and there was a huge increase in public entertainments of all sorts, from theatre-going to sports events. The explosion of print culture, particularly newspapers and magazines, created a demand for newsworthy stories about people and events. With such publicity, individuals from disparate social worlds speedily rose to fame. Elite women as well as ladies of the demi-monde paraded as fashion icons. Actors and actresses made their names in hit plays. Sportsmen became popular heroes, and so did some equine competitors. Criminals held court in prison, between their trial and a final public appearance at Tyburn for their execution. Most celebrities disappeared quickly into obscurity, but a few became famous or notorious enough for their names to survive into our own time.
Female celebrities came from across Georgian society. Fanny Murray was a courtesan who was often portrayed and written about. One illustrated broadside shows her twice, demurely dressed ‘in her primitive innocence’ and more revealingly attired adjusting her garter. Either way, she was the pattern of fashion. Elizabeth Chudleigh belonged to a much higher social rank. She became notorious after her 1749 appearance at a masquerade in a costume that left little to the imagination, an exploit that was still vividly remembered in accounts of her life written 40 years later. Actresses like the celebrated comedienne Dorothy Jordan were also leaders of style and fashion, drawing interest across the country during their summer tours of the provinces.
The actor David Garrick was celebrated for his stage performances. Garrick knew the value of publicity very well, cultivated through images of him in his most famous roles, such as Richard III in which he was painted and engraved by William Hogarth. The much-loved clown Joseph Grimaldi was frequently portrayed in the madcap action of his pantomime roles, the very opposite of Garrick’s dramatic appearances – the brightly coloured prints must quickly have become collector’s items. The bare-knuckle champion Tom Cribb is pictured at the front of Pierce Egan’s Boxiana, a chronicle of boxing history which portrays many celebrated pugilists. Racing had not only champion jockeys but also celebrated runners. The racehorse Eclipse was so successful that he was retired to stud early and became the subject of a book-length study of his anatomy.
The thief Jack Sheppard made repeated ingenious and daring escapes from prison. His exploits were detailed in the newspapers and became the subject of illustrated broadsides, encouraging crowds of people to visit him in gaol as he awaited execution at Tyburn in 1724. Some years later, the highwayman James Maclaine drew such sympathy when he appeared in court that he too had crowds of visitors following his sentence of death in 1750. Each man made his last appearance in front of a mob eager to witness his public execution. Both received posthumous biographies which excited further interest. Jack Sheppard is even now regarded as a popular hero.