Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution Exhibition – Greenwich Maritime Museum, 20 November 2015 to 28 March 2016
“But so great a noise, that I could make but little of the Musique; and endeed, it was lost to everybody. But I had so great a list to pisse, that I went out a little while before the King had done all his ceremonies…” Samuel Pepys’ description of the coronation of King Charles II , April 23, 1661
How many of us have attended a big event with high hopes – whether a coronation or a concert – only to have our view blocked by the crowd, be unable to hear due to people shouting close by and worst of all, realising we need to pay a visit which means we’ve missed the big event it’s all been leading up to….
There are many official descriptions of the coronation of King Charles II, all written with one careful eye on posterity. For me, it’s this one that echoes down the centuries as it provides a unique personal perspective of the kind that’s often lost in the grand sweep of history.
Pepys – the unwitting historian
The joy of Samuel’s diaries lies in this authentic voice. They were written purely for himself rather than for eventual publication and as such they are bawdy, funny, perceptive and moving.
Pepys begun his Diaries on January 1 1660 and continued for 10 years, stopping only when he feared his eyesight was failing – noting that he could have others write his diaries but he feared the lack of privacy that would bring.
The diaries provide a fascinating account of a life lived in the glare of some of the greatest events of the seventeenth century.
Why aren’t the Diaries in the Exhibition?
It may therefore seem strange that the stars of the show are not to be seen in the Exhibition in physical form. Pepys left them to his old Cambridge college Magdalene in his will and said if the diaries were ever to be removed, then their rivals Trinity were to have them. Hence, visitors to Greenwich Maritime Museum can browse the diaries digitally but not see them in reality.
Plague, Fire, Revolution
The Exhibition leads us through the key moments of Pepys’ life in turn – from witnessing the beheading of one monarch (Charles I) to the deposing of another (James II, by his daughter Mary and son-in-law William), via the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666.
There are many grisly historical artifacts ranging from the blood stained satin gloves worn by Charles I on the scaffold through to the instruments used to remove Pepys’ kidney stone which was nearly the size of a tennis ball and removed without anesthetic…(Pepys was unusual in that he recovered from the operation without complications and resolved to hold a celebration on every anniversary of the operation.)
With over 200 paintings and historical objects and a wonderfully descriptive and amusing guide in Pepys, this exhibition is a fantastic way to experience the tumultuous, violent and epoch defining events that shaped the London streets we walk in today.