With its current exhibition, the National Maritime Museum invites us to “Step into the curious and chaotic world of history’s greatest witness”. If you have the slightest curiosity about Pepys, the “curious man”, as John Evelyn described him, this is an opportunity not to be missed.
The times were indeed turbulent but the exhibition itself is far from chaotic. The enormous space in the basement of the National Maritime Museum has been divided into themed rooms: Samuel Pepys the Witness, Trial and Execution, Commonwealth and Crisis, Return and Restoration, King and Crown, Court and Pleasure, Plague and Fire, War and the Navy, Science and Society. There are ingenious set pieces too; a reconstruction of a restoration theatre with live-action characters in silhouette, and a multi-screen representation of the Great Fire, with a table-top map of London showing the flames spreading as Pepys’ narrative unfolds.
This is an especially well-paced exhibition; over 160 portraits, documents, maps and artefacts are each presented with clear but brief text, allowing visitors time to gaze upon the object rather than getting bogged down in lengthy descriptions.
And wondrous things have been sourced for this event; the shirt worn by Charles I at his execution along with a reliquary of his blood, Sir Isaac Newton’s reflecting telescope, a nude portrait of Nell Gwynn, the dazzling silver wedding suit of James II. Visitors from the United States may be especially intrigued by the map of New Amsterdam as it was in September 1661; a tiny Dutch settlement on Manhattan Island which the English seized in 1664 and renamed New York.
English maritime history is well represented through paintings, charts and a fascinating collection of instruments of navigation. The changing face of the monarchy is traced through documents, portraits (all those royal mistresses!), items of clothing, a sumptuously-bound Bible, a huge silver-gilt altar dish.
The central focus though is Pepys himself. His eyes are everywhere, in the portraits he had painted throughout his life, from the young man of the diary years through to the elder statesman of later life. We see Restoration London through those eyes; the theatre he loved, music, court scandals, the horrors of the Plague and the drama of the Great Fire. The exhibition draws heavily on the diary to supply substance and detail in a vivid recreation.
Readers of the diary will know of Pepys’ brush with death when he was “cut for the stone”. A set of lithotomy instruments is on display along with a bladder stone, about the size of a hen’s egg and resplendent in its chalky whiteness. This is not Pepys’ stone however. He did keep the stone that Mr Hollier removed in 1658; he had a case made for it, displayed it as a curiosity and celebrated a “stone feast” each year on the anniversary of his operation. What happened to it? Curator Robert Blyth has the answer: it survived into the twentieth century in the care of the Royal College of Surgeons but then, sadly, seems to have been lost in the Blitz.
Is anything else missing from this Pepys extravaganza? Well, the diary itself is notable by its absence. Housed in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College Cambridge, the terms of the original bequest mean that it cannot be taken off the premises. Instead it is represented here by an ingenious electronic facsimile which can be “read” by scrolling down with your finger.
In putting together this exhibition, Robert Blyth has explored and researched every aspect of Pepys’ life and times in great detail.
I asked him what he would like to say to Pepys if he had the opportunity. He hesitated for a moment and then with a mischievous twinkle said, “I’d like to ask him, ‘Did you really do all those things?’”
It’s a great question; how truthful is the diary? Did it all happen just as Pepys tells us, or might he sometimes have omitted an unflattering detail, added some slight embellishment? Look into those eyes. What do you think?
“Samuel Pepys; Plague, Fire and Revolution” is at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich until 28th March 2016.