MGM 2003 - The Real Samuel Pepys At The Museum Of London

By Matt Havercroft | 12 May 2003
Shows a reproduction of Pepys' diary and a quill and inkwell.

Left: nowadays it would be a PC and a weblog, but for Mr Pepys, it was a little harder to document his life and times. Image courtesy of the Museum of London.

Grasping a flagon of the finest ale and dusting down his new wig, Matt Havercroft boarded the nearest stagecoach and headed to London for a date with a top diarist.

Forget what you were taught of school, The Museum of London is where you can find out about the real Samuel Pepys.

Documenting the achievements of London's greatest diarist 300 years after his death, Pepys' London, running until November 3, is a celebration of life in the capital during one of the most turbulent periods in history.

Shows a contemporary sign for the Wild Boar Public House.

Right: a contemporary sign for the Wild Boar Public House. Image courtesy of the Museum of London.

Described by Hazel Forsyth at the museum as "A Pepys eye view of London" the exhibition combines 17th Century artefacts with candid extracts from Pepys' diary.

From Oliver Cromwell's death mask to wig curlers and false teeth: newspapers and contemporary art to surgeon's instruments and a plague bell, original items from the period create a sense of the times in which the diarist lived.

Shows a painting of the Great Fire of London.

Left: Pepys' diary provides us with a vivid account of the Great Fire of London. Image courtesy of the Museum of London.

During the 9 years Pepys kept his diary (1660 - 1669), he recorded the restoration of the monarchy following Oliver Cromwell's death against the backdrop of a city ravaged by the plague and the great fire of London.

Whilst the historical context is remarkable, Pepys' own story is equally compelling. From government secretary to founder of the professional navy and President for the Royal Society, Pepys worked his way up through the social echelons of London, enjoying great wealth and the trappings of city life.

Shows a mourning ring, worn to remember the Plague dead.

Right: a mourning ring, worn to remember the Plague dead. Image courtesy of the Museum of London.

With an appetite for wine and a penchant for attractive women, Pepys accounts of 17th social life make for interesting reading "…we made ourselves a great deal of mirth, but spoiled my clothes with the ale that we dash up and down; and after that, to bed very late - with drink enough in my head." April 30 - 1660.

Even during the great fire of London, Pepys made sure that his interests were safeguarded: "Sir W Batten…did dig a pit in the garden and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of …and I did dig another and put our wine in it…" September 4 -1666.

Shows some of the instruments used to try to fend off the Plague.

Left: some of the instruments used to try to fend off the Plague. Image courtesy of the Museum of London.

On fashion, Pepys was uncompromising: "…I must go handsomely, whatever it cost me…" October 21 - 1664. Only the plague could put him off the latest trend: "It is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of the infection - that it has been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague." September 3 -1665.

Pepys' was a life less ordinary and this exhibition is an entertaining tribute to London's 'accidental historian'.

Shows Oliver Cromwell's death mask.

Right: Oliver Cromwell's death mask - Pepy's diary traces the restoration of the monarchy following the Lord Protector's death. Image courtesy of the Museum of London.

Who else can claim to have been imprisoned in the tower of London, had bladder stones the size of a 17th Century tennis ball, witnessed the first attempts to transfuse blood and to have named Isaac Newton amongst his drinking companions?

300 years on, Pepys' story is still as compelling as ever.

Reviewer Matt Havercroft is participating in the 24 Hour Museum / Museum and Galleries Month Arts Writing Prize.

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