A month before the opening of “Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution“, I went on a walking tour of London with the co-curators of the Maritime Museum’s new blockbuster exhibition, Kris Martin and Robert Blyth. We traced Pepys across London, and I was privileged to see his prayer-book laid open before me in the simple quiet of the vestry in Pepys’ church, St Olave Hart Street. In hushed tones we marvelled up close at the glinting splendour of a rosewater dish, ewer and cup at the Clothworkers’ Company, donated by Pepys as a show of power with, no doubt, a little boasting on the side. A beautifully carved tobacco box was displayed for us with its lid up, I am told it won’t be displayed like this in the exhibition, a rare treat. I peered inside to see a scrap of paper, on it is written a claim of ownership by the Clothworkers’ Company on an object that once belonged to Pepys himself.
How do you get a sense of a person who is long since dead? Do you get it from their written words? Do you feel it from following their footsteps, or from gazing upon their possessions? Is it enough to know that an object ‘belonged’ to someone? Does it need context too, to see an object in its ‘home’, is that where the true story and resonance lies?
All these concerns are in my mind as I rush, late as ever, to the preview of Pepys in the Sammy Ofer Wing at the Maritime Museum. I wonder if now that I already have a sense of this man whether it will be enhanced by this exhibition or merely a diluted experience when compared to my day spent chasing his footsteps.
My first encounter in this large exhibition is with a huge stunning canvas of Charles I’s execution, on loan from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Here we are setting out the turbulent life and times of Pepys, as I stand in the press crowd I feel I am a spectre at the feast as Pepys himself was as a young boy. I love the innovative use of light to bring out the section of the painting and highlight the action, you can’t fail to miss that sense of a moment in time that eclipsed all others.
I seem to be drawn to all the paintings today, another on loan from the Museum of London captures my attention. Charles II’s cavalcade through the City of London, 22 April 1661, stretches out before me. The triumphal arches displayed in the painting are so reminiscent of my recent trip to Rome with all the power and regnal might and right that they try to convey. It is such an irony that these London versions were temporary structures made of wood and papier-mache, certainly nothing left for us to marvel at over 400 years later.
On again to another stunning portrait of Charles II in his coronation robes, Kris the co-curator begins by talking of the royal ‘loins’ so evidently displayed but I am distracted by the sumptuous costumes mirroring the display, the shoes are fantastic, so different from today’s statement trainers and Ugg boots. Looking back at the portrait, Kris draws our attention to Charles’ red heels, a French fashion statement brought over to impress the English courtly circle. It seems Christian Louboutin was not the first to use red heels as a show of wealth and status. This is where the Pepys exhibition really comes together, in the depth and breadth of the objects that are on loan. It is a stunning collection that really brings to life the period in which Pepys was living.
I think my favourite section is on ‘Court and Pleasure’, you walk in and are hit with a whole wall of courtesans, these sensual portraits are voluptuous and seductive, showing Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwyn and Moll Davis, they are a real showcase of the idea of beauty in the 17th century. It may have been a man’s world but women certainly had a power and role to play. The portrait of Nell Gwyn as Venus is particularly raunchy, apparently Charles II had it behind a sliding panel so he could gaze upon her but keep her beauty (and nakedness) from prying eyes.
We touch gently on the portrait of Aphra Behn, lady authoress and the first woman to make a living from writing. In a world where physical beauty and sexual allure was the route for many women to power, riches and security (at least for a while), it is great to see the beginnings of another route for women to take in this 17th century world.
There are strong sections on plague and in particular the Great Fire of 1666, the graphics and digital dynamic map with a voice over of Pepys’ words is fantastic. I only wish I had been able to show it to my daughter a few months back when she was studying the Great Fire at school. But what of Pepys himself? What of those objects I so excitedly expected to see? I read a review of the Pepys exhibition in the Evening Standard that gives it a good four out of five stars, their only gripe that they felt the exhibition was a little light on Pepys’ personal effects.
After all, the main event, Pepys’ diary, is not here in the flesh, constrained by his last will and testament it cannot be removed from the Peyps library at Cambridge. I think they have done a great job with their digital diary interactive (which you can see in the Vine above), it was after all written in Shelton’s shorthand so indecipherable without a little help. Perhaps this exhibition is more of a romp through the 17th century seen through the prism of Pepys, but with such turbulent events; execution, restoration, plague and fire, how can any one man stand out?
There is not a lot of his effects in the exhibition, because to be honest there are not many to be found. When I see his prayer-book and tobacco box I give them little nod of recognition. They have lost some of their power for me, the tobacco box in particular is so easy to overlook yet my precious encounter with them before was so vibrant and special and I remember it all with such clarity. Here they become merely a glance.
But is a person merely defined by the things they own? To get a sense of me in 400 years, would future generations not also need my diaries and words but also a sense of the time in which I lived, the defining moments of a generation, to paint a picture of a 21st century world and a 21st century person?
It seems that objects in cases out of their context certainly lose some of their potency, but they can be brought together with paintings and costumes and of course with precious words and woven into a rich tapestry by skilled curators. I love the Pepys exhibition, there is such a richness to the displays and a wealth of objects brought together from so many places that I feel the 17th century is not so far away anymore. If I were to have a moan I find the text on display slightly reflective and hard to read in places and the audio and noise from displays is too loud and disturbing as you wonder round but these are really minor quibbles.
But my real tip is to take all this, go and soak it up and then seek the man Pepys for yourself. Take a walking tour of Pepys’ London, sense the echoes of those days, the ferocity of the Great Fire, the horror of the plague and the chatter and bustle of London life and that is where you will find the real Pepys.
Samuel Pepys, Plague, Fire, Revolution at the National Maritime Museum runs from 20 November 2015-28 March 2016 for tickets please see the website – http://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/exhibitions-events/samuel-pepys-plague-fire-revolution-exhibition
For walking tours of Pepys’ London take a look here –
Pepys and Greenwich walking tour – 12th Feb 2016, http://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/exhibitions-events/pepys-and-greenwich-walking-tour
Pepys and the Great Fire of London walking tour – 18 March 2016 http://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/exhibitions-events/samuel-pepys-and-great-fire-london-walking-tour