Plague, Fire and Revolution: Samuel Pepys exhibition at National Maritime Museum

He played truant aged 15 to watch Charles I’s execution — but a decade later helped to bring the exiled Charles II back to England, which resulted in a meteoric career rise.
He hobnobbed with kings, royal mistresses and the greatest scientists of his day, lived through the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666, even though 100,000 Londoners died in the first and 85 per cent of the city’s houses burned down in the second.

He died a wealthy 70-year-old with a 3,000- book library that he left to Magdalene College, Cambridge, which had awarded him a degree in 1654.

Yet Samuel Pepys had humble beginnings, born to a tailor and a butcher’s daughter. London in the 17th century was a rapidly advancing place.
 
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A spectacle: Pepys's green-tinted glasses soothed his weary eyes

Now they had five rooms, a yard and a maid who slept on a truckle bed. Pepys’s lifelong interest in homemaking started here. He later bought the other half of the house, but still had his sights on something bigger. In 1660, on returning to England with Charles II, Pepys was rewarded with a job in naval administration. He rose to become Chief Secretary of the Admiralty under both Charles II and James II.

The job came with a whopping £350 salary and a 10-room house, one of a Navy Office group in Seething Lane, bordering the Tower of London.  One of the capital’s earliest gated communities, it shut at night, guarded by a porter. 

Now Pepys could indulge his passion for homemaking, collecting silks, dyed and embroidered cloths, and musical instruments — he played the flageolet and lute, among others. 

He collected scientific instruments — a microscope, a telescope he installed on the roof, and one of the first alarm clocks — and also bought books, pewter, paintings, and anything else that took his fancy. When he wasn’t reading, he was at a play, concert, or in a coffee house. He bought his wife a fashionable chintz dress, plus chintz wall hangings.
 
Few of his possessions survive, but 200 items are on show in a new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Among them is a beautifully carved tobacco box — he believed tobacco might ward off the plague.

There are also his spectacles — tinted green to soothe eye strain — and a wooden calculating machine, on which he taught Elisabeth the rudiments of mathematics.

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire and Revolution is at the National Maritime Museum from November 20. Visit  rmg.co.uk
 

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