Produced as a companion to Georgian Illuminations, this online exhibition explores the origins, technologies and uses of fireworks in the Georgian period.

In Georgian Britain, fireworks were used to spectacularly demonstrate military might and royal magnificence at major state celebrations. However, pyrotechnics were not confined to royal or government patronage. People of all classes enjoyed fireworks in the city streets, public venues like pleasure gardens, and at home. Pyrotechnics were often used as the
culmination of an illuminated lightshow, working in dialogue with temporary architecture, painted transparencies and music. Designing, making and executing firework displays was considered an art form. However, gunpowder also proved to be a volatile artistic medium, accompanied by a risk of fire, injury and even loss of life. Pyrotechnicians toed the line between violence and celebration. Displays featured a thrilling undercurrent of danger. This online exhibition explores the origins, technologies and uses of fireworks, to illuminate their role in Georgian entertainments.

Curated by Emma Mills

Part one: the origins of fireworks in Europe

While the origins of fireworks are hazy, the earliest pyrotechnics probably emerged in China following the discovery of gunpowder. Gunpowder is an explosive mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal which burns rapidly when ignited, giving off gas which acts as a propellant. This explosive substance travelled west along the Silk Routes, to reach Europe in the thirteenth century. The monk and philosopher Roger Bacon recorded an early experiment with gunpowder, citing that the mixture created ‘the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning’. Gunpowder led to the development of increasingly lethal weapons. Simultaneously, explosives were used to celebrate military victories, mark royal anniversaries and consolidate diplomatic relations. Firework displays skirt the boundary between celebration and destruction in early modern Europe.

John Babington and Pyrotechnia

Ralph Mab, printed by John Droeshout
Engraved titlepage to John Babington, Pyrotechnia, Or a Discourse of Artificiall Fire workes for Pleasure
Engraving on paper
The British Museum

Artillery has been used in England since the fourteenth century. Artillerymen or ‘gunners’ maintained and operated large gunpowder weapons like cannons. The first English manual on fireworks was published by the gunner John Babington in 1635. Pyrotechnia belongs to a wider genre of ‘books of secrets’, which consolidated early scientific knowledge. Pictured here on the title page, Babington asserts his technical, mathematical and cosmological expertise. He is surrounded by designs for elaborate pyrotechnic mechanisms. The globe to his left is an armillary sphere, used to track the movement of heavenly bodies. In periods of peace, it was advantageous for gunners like Babington to raise the status of pyrotechnic knowledge, in order to gain commissions from wealthy patrons. However, the dual purpose of pyrotechnics was never lost on gunners, as Babington explains in the dedication… ‘They may seem to serve only for delight… yet (knowledge of pyrotechnics) may excite and stir up in an ingenious mind, sundry inventions more serviceable in times of war.’

A large canvas depicting the revelry at a unique festival and celebration held between the French and British royal families in 1530.

Fantastical fireworks

British School 16th century
The Field of Cloth of Gold
Oil on canvas
Royal Collection Trust

Early firework displays used pyrotechnic machines to create fantastical effects. ‘Firework machines’ were a way of staging pyrotechnics to create drama and narrative. For example, Babington describes a design for a fire-breathing dragon. Constructed out of a woven frame and filled with pyrotechnics, the dragon would have appeared to come alive. This firework machine would have toed the line between alchemical spectacle and magic. When Henry VIII and Francis I of France held an extravagant diplomatic festival in 1530, entertainments included a dragon-shaped kite with blazing eyes and a hissing mouth, depicted in the top left corner of this commemorative painting.

A scene of a fireworks display in Covent Garden, circa 1690.

Incendiarism and celebration in seventeenth century England

Bernard Lens II
A perfect description of the firework in Covent Garden that was performd at the charge of the gentry and other inhabitants of that parish for the joyfull return of his Majestie from his conquest in Ireland, Sept. 10, 1690
Etching and aquatint on paper, hand-coloured
Designed 1690, published by John Thomas ‘Antiquity’ Smith 1809
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fireworks fell out of favour with royal and state patrons in seventeenth century England. They were associated with Catholic incendiarism following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. It was widely believed that Catholics started the Great Fire of London in 1666 with fireworks. Following the Glorious Revolution in 1689, the Catholic king James II, was overthrown. Spectacular entertainments and popular revels were used to celebrate the new Protestant monarchs, William and Mary. Firework displays became particularly popular on the 5th of November, also known as ‘Gunpowder Treason Day’. Revels were rambunctious, combining bonfires, dancing and ‘squib throwing’. Stray rockets and sparks hit some unlucky revellers in this illustration of a firework display in Covent Garden.

Part two: Georgian fireworks

By the Georgian period, firework displays combined art, music, architecture and pyrotechnics to spectacular and symbolic effect. Fireworks were a popular attraction, adding sparkle to royal birthdays, state celebrations and pleasure gardens. The excitement of fireworks is captured by the Georgian poet Thomas Hood, in his ode to the pyrotechnician Madame Hengler. Hood describes the many different types of fireworks used in the period. In this verse, familiar constellations are enlivened by the addition of pyrotechnics.

While hoaxed astronomers look up and stare
From tall observatories, dumb and dizzy,
To see a Squib in Cassiopeia’s Chair!
A Serpent wriggling into Charles’s Wain!
A Roman Candle lighting the Great Bear!
A Rocket tangled in Diana’s train,
And Crackers stuck in Berenice’s Hair!

Firework designs from the Georgian period.

Designing fireworks

Captain Robert Jones and John Muller, printed by J.Millan
Fireworks & Mines in Artificial Fireworks improved to the Modern Practice
Print on paper
Wellcome Collection

Early pyrotechnic displays combined airborne rockets with elaborate ‘firework machines’. This illustration from a Georgian firework manual demonstrates the range of firework machines available, all designed to create a different pyrotechnic effect. Figure forty-eight is described as a rotating sun of ‘nothing but sparks of brilliant fire’. Topped with a royal crown, figure fifty is an ‘Italian illuminated chandelier’, which emits blue, white and red sparks. Firework machines were important storytelling devices. In displays commissioned by royalty, symbols like the sun, comets and crowns were useful devices to link monarchy with the divine.

Pyrotechnic architecture

Published by T. Fox
The grand whim for posterity to laugh at: satirical print
Etching and letterpress on paper
The British Museum

Temporary architecture was a key element of major firework displays in the Georgian period. This impressive firework ‘temple’ was erected in Green Park in 1749. The wood and canvas façade concealed the pyrotechnicians at work. Designed by Italian pyrotechnist Giovanni Servandoni, twisting rockets, fire fountains and Catherine wheels illumined the structure. Eighteen allegorical painted transparencies adorned the temple and were backlit during the display. Onlookers would have gazed up at these vibrantly coloured illuminations, including His Majesty giving Peace to Britain and Britannia Joining Hands with France. Unfortunately, the right wing of the temple caught fire and exploded. The display was intended to lend sparkle to the Hanoverian regime. Instead, it was branded ‘the grand whim for posterity to laugh at’.

Coloured fire

J. Lodge
Pyrotechny: a selection of fireworks
Engraving and watercolour on paper
Wellcome Collection

Babington’s Pyrotechnia includes several recipes for ‘coloured fire’. When burned with gunpowder, verdigris creates a green explosion. Aqua vitae, also known as brandy, produces a blue flame. While these reactions demonstrated scientific knowledge, the Georgians considered elaborate staging and special effects to be more important to the success of a display. By the end of the Georgian era, advances in chemistry allowed for the bright spectrum of coloured fireworks we know today. As chemical effects became more sophisticated in the nineteenth century, elaborate allegorical staging fell out of fashion.

Fireworks and music

George Frideric Handel
Music for the Royal Fireworks
Musical suite
Composed 1749, performed by Le Concert Spirituel and lead by Hervé Niquet, filmed at BBC
Proms in 2012

The Green Park pyrotechnics were set off in time with a specially commissioned piece of music, composed by George Frideric Handel. Choreographing fireworks to music is now common practice. ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’ was described as a ‘grand Overture on martial instruments’, designed to lend gravity and rhythm to the display. Handel was a particularly popular composer with all classes of society. His music may have been chosen to create a sense of national community. You can listen to Handel’s spectacular score here.

A portrait on paper of Madame Hengler, a famed fireworks entrepreneur in Vauxhall.

Women and the business of fireworks

Published by Charles Tilt
Fancy Portrait - Madame Hengler, from The Comic Annual Second Edition by Thomas Hood
Print on paper
New York Public Library
Digitised by Google Books

Spectacular pyrotechnic displays were regular attractions at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, designed to entertain people from all walks of life. Vauxhall was associated with a series of ‘Fire Queens’ who worked as pyrotechnicians and performers. Tightrope walker Madame Saqui was famous for performing amidst a storm of exploding fireworks. Pictured here, Madame Hengler held the prestigious position of firework supplier to Vauxhall. Her magnificent creations earned her the title of the ‘Starry Enchantress’ and are described here by poet Thomas Hood.

Thou workest, Queen of Fire, on earth and heaven,
Between the hours of midnight and eleven,
Turning our English to Arabian Nights,
With blazing mounts, and founts, and scorching dragons,
Blue stars and white,
And blood-red light,
And dazzling Wheels fit for Enchanters' wagons.

Part three: lighting up the Grand Jubilee of 1814

The Napoleonic Wars were an ever-present spectre in the early nineteenth century. While we associate fireworks with celebration, pyrotechnics were also weapons of war. Fireworks could viscerally simulate battle and victory. Public entertainments like the Grand Jubilee of 1814 were organised by the state for specific political purposes. Pyrotechnics were partly used to demonstrate royal magnificence and British military might. This said, the unpredictability of both gunpowder and the Georgian public could upset tidy state narratives.

A view of the Jubilee Fair on the Serpentine in Hyde Park, 1814.

Weapons of war and peace

Published by John Pitts
View of the Jubilee Fair in Hyde Park
Etching and engraving on paper
The British Museum

The relationship between pyrotechnics, celebration and displays of martial might is particularly visible in this print, depicting the Grand Jubilee of 1814. Celebrating the
supposed end of the Napoleonic Wars and commemorating a century of Hanoverian rule, festivities aimed to consolidate national pride and royalist sentiment. Pyrotechnic machines can be seen on the horizon. On the Serpentine River, a fleet of miniature warships ‘battled’, using firework rockets to simulate cannon fire. With little regard for historical fact, British ships ‘vanquished’ those flying American and French flags.

A view of the Temple of Concord, a temporary 1814 structure, shrouded in smoke from a fireworks display.

Joseph Michael Gandy and the Temple of Concord

Joseph Michael Gandy
Album of landscape watercolour sketches, 1794-1827, Vol 163 image 94
Watercolour on paper
Sir John Soane’s Museum

This spectacularly theatrical firework display was the crowning jewel of the 1814 Grand Jubilee. An enormous model of a gothic fortress was pelted with rockets and artillery to simulate war. While shrouded in smoke after a long ‘siege’, the façade of the ‘Castle of Oppression’ was removed to reveal the ‘Temple of Concord’. This moment of
transformation is captured here by Sir John Soane’s long-time collaborator Joseph Michael Gandy. While pamphlets criticised the firework machine as tasteless, its symbolism was clear. Victory had destroyed the threat of French oppression and the British people could look forward to peace and plenty.

A cartoon satirising the extravagant funds spent by the Prince Regent during the Jubilee celebrations of 1814.

Explosive satire and fizzling state propaganda

George Cruikshank
The Modern Don Quixote or, The Fire King
Hand-coloured etching on paper
The British Museum

The aim of the 1814 Jubilee was to celebrate the apparent end of the Napoleonic Wars and stir up support for the monarchy. However, not everyone welcomed such lavish spending on temporary displays, especially after a long period of heavy taxation to fund the wars. Some satirists blamed the Prince Regent for squandering money on the entertainments, which fitted with his existing reputation as a decadent libertine. In this caricature, the unpopular, spendthrift Regent is styled as Don Quixote atop a rocking horse. Unaware of the powderkeg beneath, he is represented as excessive and self-interested. The following verse from a popular song captures the wry public attitude towards the Regent and his firework display.

To buy Congreve Rockets,
He emptied both pockets,
As if he his coffers to drain meant,
And Bridges projected,
And Temples erected,
For fireworks and such Entertainment:
O what a wise Entertainment!
A noble Guy Faux Entertainment!
A puerile taste,
And ridiculous waste,
Content in this Entertainment.

The tower of the Chinese Bridge in St. James's Park in flames, during the celebrations of 1814.

Perilous potential

Frederick Calvert
A view of the Chinese Bridge in St James’s Park as seen at midnight on the 1st August: in celebration of the Glorious Peace of 1814
Hand-coloured etching on paper
British Library

At the Grand Jubilee of 1814, the Chinese Bridge in St James’s Park caught fire. While the cause was unclear, Georgian recipes for pyrotechnic effects may give us a clue. Eyewitnesses describe ‘underwater fireworks’ in Hyde Park later that evening. A contemporary firework manual provides a recipe for ‘wildfire that burns underwater’. Composed of ‘equal parts sulphur, naphtha, bitumen, pitch and gum’, the flame could only be extinguished by ‘vinegar, sand and urine’. With this potent mix of ingredients, ordered state displays of power could quickly devolve into chaos.

Part four: fireworks for polite society

In the early modern period, audiences for firework displays tended to be characterised as either noble or vulgar. The nobility appreciated fireworks as an art form, while the ‘lower’ classes became riled and boisterous. As the ‘middling sort’ became more established in the Georgian period, alternative forms of ‘polite’ pyrotechnic entertainment emerged. ‘Philosophical fireworks’ were designed to entertain and educate spectators. Their effects depended on illuminated machines, optical illusions, chemical reactions and electrical fire, which provided a less dirty and dangerous, and more genteel prospect. These ‘faux fireworks’ combined art with natural philosophy, appealing to middle-class audiences who valued self-improvement.

Domesticating fireworks

Ditmar Bollaert and Els Prevenier
Feux Pyriques
Firework machine c.1820, performed and filmed in 2021
University of Antwerp

This video shows a faux fireworks machine in action. Firework cabinets imitated the glittering effect of pyrotechnics. Like the transparencies used in Georgian illumined displays, this machine uses a series of perforated and painted screens backlit by candlelight. A whirling disk of spiral cutouts is cranked behind the screen to mimic a sparkling firework display. Far from the soot, fire and chaos of gunpowder, fireworks could now be enjoyed privately in a domestic setting. While traditional pyrotechnics continued to be popular, elaborately staged displays fell out of fashion in the nineteenth century. Advances in chemistry allowed for a rainbow of pyrotechnic effects. As a result, displays were transformed into the abstract bursts and patterns of coloured fire familiar to us today.