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REVIEW- Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution

Samuel Pepys, John Hayls, 1666 (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

Portrait of Samuel Pepys by John Hayles, painted in 1666 when Pepys was thirty-three years old. Recalling sitting for this portrait, Pepys wrote in his diary ‘I…do almost break my neck looking over my shoulder to make the posture for him to work by.‘ © National Portrait Gallery, London

In the great hall of Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham, West Sussex, there hangs a gigantic painting showing an enthroned King James II receiving the mathematical scholars of the school, painted between 1684 and 1690 by Antonio Verrio. Its impressive scale makes its extensive cast of figures appear practically life-size. Among the great crowd of dukes, earls, soldiers, bishops, courtiers and Christ’s Hospital pupils, there is a man standing to James’s left, about four people between he and the king. In this picture, he is but a face in the crowd, and one’s eye is certainly not drawn to him in the way that some of the painting’s more lavishly dressed and dynamically posed figures are. A perfectly fitting representation of a man who, in his time, did not stand out from the crowd, but did nonetheless stand close to the king. A man who did not make great waves, but carried out vital work in the background. And a man that almost nobody would know the name of today, and would certainly not bother to try and spot in the Christ’s Hospital painting, were it not for a diary that he wrote more than twenty years before Verrio’s great work was finished. That man is Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), and it is thanks to his meticulous account of each day of his life between January 1660 and May 1669 that he now has an exhibition dedicated to him at the National Maritime Museum, in which is displayed a small copy of Verrio’s painting.

The exhibition also features a picture of James II’s coronation procession, in which Samuel Pepys is also featured, this time carrying one of the corners of the square canopy sheltering the king. And a copy of a first edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, perhaps the most famous book in the history of science, is on display not because Pepys revolutionised natural philosophy in the way his contemporary Newton did, but because he was president of the Royal Society at the time of its publication in 1687. In another fitting commemoration of his place in history, his name is written on the title page. Not an author of history, granted, but certainly not a historical footnote either!


Procession for the Coronation of James II by Francis Sandford © British Library board

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution -as its title underlines- brings to life some of the most extraordinary events in English history, that just so happened to take place during the time that a married civil servant from London was writing a diary, and have since become forever associated with him. Accompanying sound and visuals nicely evoke the chaos and destruction of both the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666, while the costumes, the ornaments and the paintings by Peter Lely of Charles II’s favourite mistresses bring to life the decadence and shamelessness of the Restoration court. But it is the less well-known bits of Samuel Pepys’s life story, such as his travels in north Africa, that I found some of the most interesting in the exhibition.

Greenwich is a fitting location for an exhibition on Samuel Pepys since it was where he worked as an administrator for the Royal Navy for much of his working life. His work not only saw him paid very handsomely (‘a yearly fee of thirty-three pounds, six shillings and eight pence of lawfull money of England‘, about £66,500 per annum in today’s money), but it amounted to very important work at a very important time for the navy. England was beginning to establish itself as a global power by the middle of the seventeenth century, thanks to its increasing dominance of intercontinental trade and commerce, and the sewing of the first seeds of what would become the largest empire in history. While the admirals and captains made names for themselves by setting off on the high seas and flying the flag, Pepys managed all the accounts, weeded out corruption, and pulled strings at the royal court to ensure the navy was in the best possible shape. In 1684, he accompanied admiral George Legge, Earl of Dartmouth to the city of Algiers, an English colony on the North African coast that had proved itself a drain on resources too great for the government to let continue, to sort out compensation for the English owners of the properties within the city before the army raised it to the ground and abandoned it. The Tangiers trip was a significant enough moment in Pepys’ life for him to feel compelled to record it in a diary, fifteen years after he had brought his original diary to a close (he had feared his constant squinting as he wrote by candlelight was damaging his eyesight). In many ways, his observations about north Africa could have been written by any Brit abroad today, noting the incessant heat, the strange food, and ‘the most extraordinary spider I ever saw, at least ten times as big as an ordinary spider. Such things this country do mightily abound with.’

James, Duke of York (future James II) as Mars, god of war, by Henri Gascar, 1672-73 © National Maritime Museum, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection

John Michael Wright’s enormous coronation portrait of Charles II, on loan from the Royal Collection, is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the exhibition. But I equally enjoyed some of the more naval-themed portraits from the National Maritime Museum’s own collections, such as the portrayal of the future James II as Mars, Roman god of war, during his time as Lord High Admiral, by Henri Gascar, and his brother Charles rising triumphantly out of the sea by Neptune, held aloft by three crowned naked women representing his three kingdoms, painted by Antonio Verrio to celebrate a naval victory over the Dutch. And the clothing, including two wedding suits worn by James II and a man named Edmund Verney, are magnificent. More than four-hundred feet of ribbon went into making Mr Verney’s suit alone, enabling it to completely overshadow the glittering gown worn by a high-status court lady standing beside it.

With the exhibition organised more-or-less chronologically, it begins with an event that was both a watershed moment in English history and, unknown to me before my visit, something that was witnessed by Samuel Pepys. On a freezing January morning in 1649, a fifteen-year-old Pepys decided to skip school and go to watch the execution of King Charles I. After the king’s head came off, many members of the crowd rushed forward to mop up some of his blood. Those who regarded Charles as a martyr (the Church of England would officially canonise him a few decades later) believed it to be sacred, and to have special healing powers. In one of the display cases is a reliquary containing some of this blood, that would have been a treasured possession of a diehard royalist, carried discretely on their person during the years of Cromwell’s republic. Other remarkable Charles I execution souvenirs include a book he wrote in the weeks leading up to his trial, Portraiture of His Sacred Majestie (in which he defiantly outlines his views on the divine right of kings), with blue ribbons thought to be from his own Garter robes attached to the binding, and a pair of gloves which the king took off and handed to the Bishop of London moments before he knelt down and placed his neck on the block.

This dramatic climax to the Civil War may have felt like a new beginning to the young Samuel Pepys and the rest of the crowd gathered on Whitehall that day, but the English commonwealth would last only a decade before Charles II’s triumphant return in 1660. It was at the very beginning of that year that a twenty-six year-old Pepys began writing his diary. And he found himself intimately connected with momentous events almost immediately, travelling with his cousin Edward Montague, Earl of Sandwich on board the Naseby to collect the new king from the continent and return him to his kingdom. Whatever his views were about absolute monarchy, or republicanism, or about politics in general, it appears that Pepys -like most of the English population- had grown weary of Cromwell’s joyless, puritan rule, and welcomed the return of the monarchy. In an era when political allegiance might cost you your head, Pepys had a canny knack of knowing what direction the tide of history was turning, and which cause to support. He had no problem, for instance, with pledging his allegiance to the catholic James II upon his accession to the throne in 1685, even as many powerful men in the king’s inner circle began to plot his overthrow. In this regard, Pepys’ religious conviction was clearly not as strong as many of his contemporaries (he seemed to regard going to church every Sunday primarily as an opportunity to peruse good-looking women). When the Glorious Revolution eventually came in 1688, prompted by an invitation to invade England sent by a group of politicians to William of Orange -another incredible little nugget of English history on display in the exhibition- Pepys, who was by now a fifty year-old man of very comfortable means, decided simply to retire, and devote even more time to going to the theatre and collecting books for his library.

Painting of the Fire of London, September 1666. BHC0291

Painting of ‘the Fire of London, September 1666’ by an unknown artist. As London burned, Samuel Pepys decided to bury his most treasured possessions – his wine and his parmesan cheese – in his garden for safe-keeping. © National Maritime Museum, London.

Pepys’ obsessively organised, three-thousand volume library was bequeathed in his will -the final object on display in the exhibition- to Magdalane college, Cambridge, along with his diary. Sadly, Pepys’s explicit instructions left in the will, followed to the letter by Magdalane college, mean that the original diary cannot leave the college, and thus the very artefact on which the whole exhibition is centred is not on display! The exhibition does go a considerable way towards making up for this, including several touch-screen displays that allow visitors to read various extracts of the transcriptions made by Cambridge undergraduate John Smith in the 19th century. Given that Pepys had written his diary in code, it was in Smith’s handwriting that Pepys’s words were finally ‘revealed’ to the world, more than a century after his death. Incredibly, having spent months deciphering Pepys complex code, and transcribing all one-million-or-so words, John Smith was informed by a fellow student that Pepys’ own a copy of Thomas Shelton’s code book, which outlined precisely how the code worked, was sitting on a nearby shelf in the college library.

First transcriptions of Samuel Pepys's diary, page 1, John Smith, 1825, (c) By permission of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College, Cambridge

First transcriptions of Samuel Pepys’s diary, page 1, John Smith, 1825, © By permission of the Master and Fellows of Magdalene College, Cambridge

As the exhibition so brilliantly demonstrates, it isn’t just the fact that Pepys happened to witness so many momentous events in English history, and describe them in vidid detail, that has made his diary such a fascinating read to historians and the wider public alike. It is also down to the fact that there is something genuinely endearing about the man, and the way he is continually torn between his conscience – that deplores the debauchery and indulgence of Charles II’s court – and his own insatiable appetite for wine, women, and fine living. ‘I do still see that my nature is not to be quite conquered,‘ he writes on 9th March, 1665, ‘but will esteem pleasure above all all things‘. It is the honesty, and the frequent self-effacing nature of his writing that makes it so relatable to its readers both today, and for centuries to come.

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution opens today at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and runs until 28th March 2015, with tickets costing £10.80 for adults and £5.40 for children.

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