London: Samuel Pepys; Plague, Fire, Revolution @ the National Maritime Museum

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Certainly a Pepys exhibit was as good of an excuse as any to go eat churros visit Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum again.  I’d been avoiding the area for some months, as the last time I was there, the market was all tore up, and the Brazilian churro stand was nowhere to be seen.  Fortunately, I’m happy to report that Greenwich Market seems more or less back to normal, and the churro stand is back in its rightful spot every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  Not that you HAVE to eat a churro if you go to Greenwich, but if the option to consume an oozing dulce de leche stuffed fried sugared pastry exists, why wouldn’t you choose it?!

Anyway, after getting the whole churro business out of the way (I’m obsessed! (and half hoping the owners read this and offer me free churros, but since they have no idea who the hell I am, that’s not likely)), we were free to pop over to the National Maritime Museum and see the Pepys thing.  Because in addition to churros, I also love Samuel Pepys, misogynistic philanderer though he was.  Admission with voluntary Gift Aid is £12, but you can drop it down to £10.80 if you decline the donation, or even better, £5.40 with a National Rail 2-for-1 and a friend (or in my case, partner, since I haven’t really got any friends).  Like all of the National Maritime Museum’s temporary exhibitions, it’s in the basement gallery, which is always bizarrely dark (I get the whole conservation thing, but it seems consistently dark, no matter what they’ve got in there.  You also can’t take pictures, perhaps because it’s so dark you couldn’t do it without a flash anyway), but reasonably spacious, so that they seem able to spread things out enough that people aren’t constantly on top of each other, which I appreciate.  We also visited on a Friday afternoon, which helped cut down on the crowds.  Basically, it was a far more pleasant experience than the Crime Museum exhibit all around, even if the material wasn’t quite as interesting.

Which is not to knock Pepys and his writing; he’s great, it was perhaps more that the information here was fairly basic, and given that I’ve spent a fair bit of time studying the latter half of the 17th century, there wasn’t very much to learn.  The exhibit tied together various historical events that happened during Pepys’s lifetime with his diary entries (or other writings, in the years after his diary finished).  But because Pepys journalled (is that a word?) from 1660-69, the bulk of the exhibition was devoted to London during those years.

The exhibit opened with the downfall of Charles I, explaining how a young Samuel Pepys was a witness to his execution, and including some Civil War artefacts.  It didn’t waste too much time on Cromwell and the Puritans, and why should it?  They were dreadful!  Good times were restored along with Charles II, and the exhibit went on to discuss the pleasures of Restoration-era life, including theatre, Charles II’s many mistresses (and Pepys’s fumbling attempts to fondle his maids and other female acquaintances), and the plague of 1665, followed by the Great Fire.  Everyone knows Pepys buried his Parmesan during the fire (one of the reasons I like him – hard Italian cheeses are my favourite, though I tend to favour pecorino over parmesan.  It’s saltier.  I would still happily nosh on a big ol’ wheel of parmesan though), but there were some lesser-known Pepys passages available here, especially in the interactive diary readers on the wall.  I was amused to read that he left Charles II’s coronation celebrations early, as he “needed a piss.”  Again, he’s a man after my own heart/small bladder.  Speaking of bladders, I briefly got excited when I saw a bladder stone on display here, hoping it was Pepys’s elusive one (which I’ve spent a good many hours trying to track down), but it was just there to show the approximate size his would have been (which probably means my research is correct, and Pepys’s stone is long-lost. It’s a shame, that).

There were some cool computery effects throughout, including a silhouettey performance of Macbeth, with Pepys’s comments on the play narrated over it (I liked the witches), a tracker that showed how many people died from plague over the course of 1665, and a bunch of flame effects in the Great Fire room, with a map that showed London being engulfed.  There were also a lot of genuinely neat artefacts – not so much from Pepys, as many of his possessions seem to have been destroyed, including the painting of Elizabeth that matched his own (poor, long-suffering Elizabeth.  Not only did she have to put up with all of Pepys’s crap, she died when she was only 29), but from the royals.  I loved the letter from Charles II to one of his mistresses (Louise de Kerouaille), who he called “Fubbs” because she had chubby cheeks (he even named his yacht Fubbs, after her).  I mean, the Fubbs thing was kind of charming, albeit mildly insulting, and he had fairly messy handwriting, which you probably wouldn’t expect from a king.  And there was a fantastic portrait of him leading the Navy as some kind of mer-creature, with lots of weird looking fish and things all around.  And one of James II wearing these spectacular sandals.

The exhibit moved on from 1660s London to the post-diary part of Pepys’s life, when he became Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, and was involved in all things naval, which is presumably why this exhibit was at the National Maritime Museum in the first place.  It also mentioned his interest in science, although in a backhanded way, as it stated he probably didn’t understand much of what was discussed at the Royal Society, despite being its president for a time.  (To be fair, Pepys himself admitted as much, but it still seemed a bit mean, as he was clearly a man who loved learning, even if some of the concepts were beyond him.)

Finally, it closed with the Glorious Revolution, which led to Pepys’s downfall in a way, as he was very close to James II, despite being Protestant himself.  He was accused of being a Catholic sympathiser and imprisoned for a time (there’s definitely a book out there that I’ve read about this,  but I can’t remember what it’s called).  Though his name was eventually cleared, it pretty much put an end to his career, especially as he was already in his late 50s at this point.  There were some excellent paintings of Pepys attending James’s coronation though, so at least something good came out of the whole fiasco.

I was asked to rate the exhibit (via computer survey, there wasn’t anyone there dying for my opinion or anything) immediately upon leaving, and gave it a 7/10, which translates to a 3.5/5 on my own rating system, and I think I’d like to stick with that assessment.  I didn’t learn very much that was new, but people who aren’t that knowledgeable about Pepys or Restoration London probably will learn a fair bit, and there were some fantastic paintings and letters here that everyone can enjoy.  Again, probably not a 12 quid exhibit, as it only takes about an hour (if that) to look through, but I definitely think the 2-for-1 price was more than fair.  I especially appreciated the lack of crowds.  Oh, and the posters advertising the exhibition are extremely excellent (pictured at the start); if they don’t sell you on going to see it, I’m not sure what will really.  Definitely worth a “Pepys,” this one (yes, I’ve used that joke before).

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7 comments

  1. I’m ashamed to say that I know practically zip about Pepys – I’m going to have to remedy this right now. He sounds like a whole lot of fun.

    1. He really is. Anyone who would mount their bladder stone in gold to use as a paperweight, and then have a banquet every year on the anniversary of his “cutting for the stone” surgery to celebrate his survival, is alright with me. I like Aphra Behn a lot too. There’s just something about those Restoration-era writers.

  2. Oh, I’m a big fan of Pepys too! I studied the Restoration at uni, so that’s going back a fair old while. I kind of forgot about him for a long time though, till Claire Tomalin’s biography came out and rekindled my interest. Have you been to his library in Cambridge? It doesn’t take long to visit but it was amazing to think you were looking at the bookcases he commissioned with the books still in the order he chose.

    1. I have never been to Cambridge, at all, which is perhaps a shocking oversight on my part. I did stop by Ely on my way back from East Anglia a few years ago, but we didn’t have time to stop in Cambridge too. I suppose I really should though, especially now that I know his library is there! 🙂 Maybe when the weather warms up enough for a nice long day trip!

      1. Oh, Cambridge is well worth a visit for all sorts of reasons! I The Pepys Library is in Magdalene College (pronounced Maudlin, absurdly).

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