Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) lived through some of the most dramatic events of the seventeenth century. He witnessed at a young age the beheading of a king, followed by a republic, then the Restoration and two coronations; not to mention the Great Plague of 1665 and the Fire of London in 1666. A republican who served under the monarchy, a lover of wine, women and song who nevertheless condemned the licentiousness of the royal court, a President of the Royal Society who admitted that he often did not understand science, and a naval administrator who, when he joined, knew nothing about the sea, Pepys strikes me as a sympathetic character, an ordinary man who to a large extent made it up as he went along and was able to succeed by adapting himself to circumstance and making an effort to learn.
The Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution exhibition, which uses the witty hashtag #PepysShow, explores the history of Pepys’ time in his own words, alongside artefacts and records from the period. He has been called the greatest diarist in the English language; his diary is notable for recording everyday details as well as major events, which have allowed historians to understand what daily life in the seventeenth century was like. Pepys actually kept his diary for ten years only, between 1660 and 1669; he stopped because he feared his eyesight was being affected. However, we have other ways of learning about his life, such as his letters.
The exhibition follows a largely chronological format, beginning with the beheading of King Charles I, witnessed by a young Pepys. We learn about the life-threatening and excruciatingly painful operation he underwent to remove a bladder stone, and his marriage to Elisabeth de St Michel. Pepys’ everyday life is explored in displays relating to music and theatre, both of which he enjoyed, especially after the Restoration when theatre was once again permitted and encouraged.
We learn about the Great Fire from Pepys’ detailed account, as well as his wife’s illness and death. Later, Pepys was active in the Royal Society and became its President; interestingly, I learned here that Newton’s seminal Principia Mathematica was only published thanks to a donation from Edmund Halley, as the Royal Society had just spent its entire book budget on a History of Fishes.
One of the most impressive items in the exhibition is the eighteenth century court dress, which is in fantastic condition especially given its age. I also enjoyed looking at other artefacts from the period, including early editions of books. The last part of the exhibition explores the publication history of Pepy’s diary: several individuals transcribed them into plain English (from the shorthand in which they were written) during the nineteenth century but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the full, unexpurgated edition – containing references to Pepys’ various liaisons – was published.
The exhibition runs at the National Maritime Museum until 28 March, and it is well worth visiting if you are at all interested in this period of history.