Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Peeping at Pepys

Pepys banner to left on walkway to the National Maritime Museum

If Samuel Pepys were alive today, he would undoubtedly be an influential blogger or even a vlogger. I remember learning about this great 17th Century diarist at school.

Pepys witnessed many momentous events in British history including the beheading of a king, the plague and the Great Fire of London. He lived through the reigns of five monarchs as well as the years under Oliver Cromwell. The Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum offered an excellent opportunity to find out more about the great diarist than they taught me at school.

Travel by Thames
Weekend tube engineering works didn’t make the journey to Greenwich easy. However, the Thames came to the rescue. Why travel underground when you can take the ferry, relax and admire the view of London from the river? Just as naval man Pepys did perhaps?

Pic of passengers disembarking from ferry in Greenwich
Ferry lands at Greenwich Pier close to the museum

King’s Execution
The exhibition has received much acclaim, so I was intrigued to find out why for myself. This is a modern exhibition that seeks to recreate an experience of the time. No sooner had I stepped over the threshold than I was confronted by the sound of an axe.

At just 15 years of age, Pepys attended the execution of Charles I. Dead ahead was a painting depicting various scenes from the day. To the left were the king’s gloves - the elegant gloves of a man who met an horrific end. Just days later I found myself at the spot where Charles I had stood trial in Westminster Hall. The exhibition gave more meaning to the plaque marking the spot.

Husband and Wife
Paintings of Pepys and his wife appeared side by side – just as in life. Sadly, Pepys’ wife died at just 29 years of age. From the outset the museum got away from the traditional juxtaposition of artefact after artefact. The pieces were carefully selected to create an experience – to bring the people and times to life from their possessions.

I particularly enjoyed the little theatre. A small stage recreated Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a comedy using silhouettes. We heard Pepys’ comments on the various actors’ and actresses’ performances at the time. By coming from the stark execution scene to an example of Restoration Theatre, the exhibition gave an impression of the contrasting times that Pepys lived through.

Great Fire
The best section in the exhibition was undoubtedly the recreation of the Great Fire of London. A black and white pen and ink drawing showed the London of the day set in panels. Pepys’ own words told the story as the fire grew, spreading from frame to frame. Pepys and his wife first heard of the fire at 3am from their maid. The diarist later told the king about what he had seen.

The diary itself is kept in Cambridge. Pepys wrote in shorthand. A tablet showed how it looked. If you touched a section, you could see a transcription in English. Pepys only actually kept the diary from 1660 until 1669. He mistakenly thought that he was going blind due to straining his eyes in poor light and abandoned it.

Pic of exhibition book with Pepys at top and king upside down underneath title
Publication from the Pepys Exhibition
Pepys realised the historical significance of his diary. He ensured its preservation and publication after his death. Despite criticising the King’s extravagance and behaviour, it seems that some of Pepys’ own behaviour and words met with publishers’ disapproval. Some sections were censored until relatively recent times. Definitely not sections I heard about at school.

Social Mobility
It was fascinating to hear about Pepys' career in naval administration. It is extraordinary to think that the son of a tailor rose to hold such important offices thanks to a grammar school education.

At the end of the exhibition, I found myself wanting more. Another room. Another clever animation perhaps? I suppose the museum’s budget could not stretch that far.

A museum exhibition that leaves you wanting more is quite an accolade.

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