Propelled by the voice and personality of the famous diarist at its centre, the exhibition ‘Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution’ (20 November 2015-28 March 2016) at Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum, explores a formative era of British history, marked out by accomplishment, upheaval and excess. It was a time that saw a repositioning of the monarchy and Britain’s development as a maritime, economic and political force on the world stage.
And from the devastation of the seventeenth century plague to the swaggering return of Charles II and the Great Fire of London to the height of Isaac Newton’s discoveries, Samuel Pepys was there to see it all – and, in his diary, record it all.
Featuring around 200 objectsfrom national and international museums, galleries and private collections, this is the largest ever exhibitdedicated tothe famous and candid diarist whom, one of the most colourful and appealing characters of the seventeenth century, witnessed many of the great events that shaped Stuart Britain, in addition to being a naval mastermind, a gossip, a socialite, a love of music, theatre, fine living and women.
Pepys began his legendary and iconic diary (rightly one of the most famous in the world) on 1 January 1660 and, just months later, was aboard the ship carrying the future Charles II out of exile to restore the monarchy to England later that year. The diary recounts his distaste at the debauchery at the heart of Charles II’s court, revolving around the goings-on of the ‘Merry Monarch’ with his many mistresses, although Pepys was frequently unfaithful to his wife as well.
On display will be a number of objects connected to Charles II and his mistresses including a little seen love letter the King wrote to one of them. These are fascinating items, as thought-provoking as they are delightful and worth taking the trip to Greenwich from the West End to see, should you be staying in one of the many hotels near Piccadilly Circus.
To be seen too at this comprehensive Samuel Pepys exhibition are original versions of Isaac Newton’s ground-breaking ‘Principia Mathematica’ and Robert Hooke’s extraordinary ‘Micrographia’ (the latter described by Pepys as ‘the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life’). The connection between these publications and the exhibit’s subject being the fact hewas president of the Royal Society when they were published, placing him at the centre of what we today would understand as science and scientific debate. Even if he wasn’t always able to properly understand what he heard at the Society’s lectures delivered by geniuses of the age such as Newton, Pepys was undoubtedly fascinated and highly impressed.
Away from its enlightened development, the era’s turbulenceis starkly clear when one considers that, as a schoolboy, Pepys played truant in1649towitness the execution ofKing Charles I (father of Charles II), while 1658 – the year of Oliver Cromwell’s death, the old king’s ‘conqueror’– was also a year of personal crisis for the monarchist Pepys because it saw himgo under the knife in a life-threatening operation to remove a bladder stone, which was the size of a snooker ball, without either anaesthetic or antiseptic. The enormously painful,grisly and dangerous procedure is brought to mind for all visitors via the aid of exactly the type of seventeenth century medical instruments that could have been used on Pepys during that fateful operation.
Pepys’s own career – and thus his life – wasintertwined with and somewhat defined by national events of the era that were totally outside his control. Indeed, his demise as a major political and social mover and shaker was ushered in by 1689’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ – the fall of his later patron King James II (brother to Charles II) and the accession of King William III and Queen Mary II – when our man was forced into retirement and finally stepped off the stage and into the shadows.
But what a life he’d lived, so much of which is intelligently and compellingly evoked in this unmissable exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, whose extensivecollection of artefacts dates back to 1823 when a National Gallery of Naval Art was established in its home, an extremely elegant building just a short walk from the splendour of Greenwich Park