The Exhibition Stare

When Somerset House opened to the public in 1780 the main staircase which lead to “the Great Room” quickly became one of London’s famous attractions. This fact is often attributed to its terrifying steepness and narrowness, the climbing of which was viewed as an “aesthetic experience” which people of the time would have referred to as “sublime.” Evidently there was another, and one must assume equally exhilarating, reason for it’s popularity. 

Quote: “The Morning Post, 3 May 1785, comments that, ‘there are two descriptions of persons who visit the Royal Academy, some perambulate the rooms to view the heads, others remain at the bottom of the stairs to contemplate the legs.’ While the World, Fashionable Advertiser, 8 May 1787, notes that, ‘Exhibitions are now the rage and though some may have more merit, yet certainly none has so much attraction as that at Somerset House; for, besides the exhibition of pictures living and inanimate, there is the raree-show [peep show] of neat ankles up the stair-case, which is not less inviting.’”

The image above is a detail from Thomas Rowlandson’s The Exhibition Stare c. 1811, which caricatured all the excitement of this “attraction.”

12.03. filed under: art. history. humanity. 6