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Review: The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn by Margaret Willes.

the-curious-world-of-samuel-pepys-and-john-evelynLondoner Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703) is the most famous proper diarist in the English language. Those who appreciate a little of London history will know too his fellow practitioner and great friend John Evelyn (1620 – 1706).

Pepys kept his diary for just 10 years until 1669 when he felt it was affecting his eyesight. Evelyn was far more prodigious, noting down his daily thoughts from 1660 until his death in 1706. We find that others – notably Robert Hooke – also enjoyed the pastime, a genre embraced with much enthusiasm from the mid 17th century onwards. Unlike Pepys, Evelyn retrospectively updated and adjusted his diaries over time, which may seem to us now to be a bit cheaty. Pepys, perhaps, didn’t see his daily jottings as a legacy issue. How ironic.

The two men had much in common. They were both active members and supporters of the new Royal Society; they were keen collectors of books; they had friends and acquaintances in common such as Hooke, Boyle, Wren and others of that golden generation. In short they belonged to group of men whom we might describe as curious gentlemen of affairs. That’s how they would have seen themselves and how others saw them too, and not always approvingly.

But at the same time, they were very different. Pepys became a widower and had no children; Evelyn had a successful and long marriage with many offspring (although most did not survive childhood). Their attitude to women generally was entirely different. Pepys, though well-connected, was not as wealthy as Evelyn and had to make his fortune through successful public service. Most importantly, though, Pepys’s character was as earthy as Evelyn’s was high-minded. The former was addicted to theatre, music and entertainment generally whereas his friend’s obsession was primarily horticulture. Pepys experienced prison; Evelyn not. Evelyn’s world view was shaped by his continental travels as a young man; Pepys lacked this benefit. And so on.

Looking through the prism of  the interests and experiences of these two men, we can build a detailed and fascinating picture what life was like for the educated elite in Restoration London. That is idea underpinning this book. It is not really about Pepys and Evelyn so much as about their curious world and hence the title.

The early chapters talk about the political and social environment inhabited by our protagonists. We are introduced to their friends, their family and others who shaped their lives. It’s good to be reminded of the origin of the word cabal and the genesis of Whigs and Tories.

As later chapters examine in further detail, this was a remarkable period of firsts. Formalised scientific enquiry through the Royal Society; the introduction of tea, coffee and chocolate; the rise of the coffee houses (it was interesting find out that coffee had taken hold in Oxford some good ten years before London); the craze for imported foreign manufactures – furniture, linen, crockery, etc; shopping malls!

These are wonderfully developed, but for me there are two stand-out chapters. The first – Chapter 6, Pleasure in All Things, is mainly about Pepys. It addresses the Restoration theatre of Kelligrew and Davenant with appearances, of course, by Margaret Hughes (another first) and Nell Gwynn. Pepys’s love of music introduces us to how that was written, performed, consumed and distributed at the time.

The other is the book’s final chapter – The Affection Which We Have to Books – which brings us full circle for both men: their love of books. This is one of the author’s specialities and it shines. Pepys’s library (now at Magdalene College, Cambridge) numbered some 3,000 titles while Evelyn’s was even larger at around 4,000 – both enormous by the standards of the day. Respectively, as you would expect, they tell us much about their owners who assembled them, housed them and catalogued them in distinctly different ways, also reflecting their personalities. The contemporary London book trade – agents, vendors, booksellers, stationers, auctioneers – an enormous topic, here wonderfully described. For me, this was one of the most fascinating sections of the book. One among many.

I can’t remember a history book as richly illustrated as this. There are fully 48 pages of colour plates in three sections. Virtually every topic covered in the text has an image to match – portraits, maps, engravings, landscapes, fabrics, toys, panoramas, landscapes, furniture and on and on. All generously captioned.

This is a wonderful introduction to the Restoration London scene through the lives of two if its most significant players. Thoroughly researched, organised and presented, I loved every page and recommend it unreservedly.


The Curious World or Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn (282pp) by Margaret Willes is published by Yale with a cover price of £20.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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royal river greenwichThis exhibition at the National Maritime Museum – guest-curated by David Starkey – celebrates five hundred years of the London Thames and its relationship with our monarchs. The narrative sweep is partitioned neatly and chronologically. We see how Tudor and Stuart rulers mounted simply enormous royal processions, mainly for propagandistic purposes. Henry VIII did one for Anne Boleyn. Charles II introduced Catherine of Braganza to the London public with a huge river display for which Pepys himself could not get a berth on any boat for under eight shillings, leaving us to rely on John Evelyn’s account. The Queen’s procession on 3rd June will be the first in 350 years to rival these.

The next section – my favourite – shows us how livery companies, many of whom had their own barges, tried to outdo each other for opulence during the new Lord Mayor’s annual river procession. We have contemporary paintings and gorgeous barge objects – carved and gilded coats of arms, patron saints, uniforms and more.

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

Quirky. A 17C mascot statue belonging to the Company of Ironmongers. It was believed ostriches ate iron.

Later on we see how the royal centre of gravity moved west, particularly when George III moved the family to Kew. Objects on show include his telescopes, a microscope and an amazing breakfast table egg boiler (reminding one of Gillray’s cruel cartoon).

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

Poignant. Last known portrait of George III. Wigless, mad and not terribly happy.

By the early 19th Century, the Thames was sewage-infested and fast deteriorating. The golden age of barge processions as depicted by Canaletto was well and truly over. The exhibition perforce concentrates on new bridges, the embankment and pumping stations. Steam and engineers. We have portraits I had not seen before of hero engineers: Rennie and Bazalgette. And we have of course Barry and Pugin transforming the Westminster shoreline. The role of royalty was now opening bridges and pumping stations.

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

The overwhelming majority of objects brought together for this exhibition have been lent by other institutions; by livery companies; by private collectors; and not least by Her Majesty the Queen. Aside from those mentioned above we have original scores of Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks; 18C musical instruments; landscape paintings and original architect and engineering drawings; flags, livery and uniforms; royal souvenirs and gifts. My favourite: a huge carved Stuart coat of arms from the ship Royal Charles, captured by the Dutch and still in their possession!

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

Professor Starkey and the National Maritime Museum are to be congratulated for mounting this stunning and deeply absorbing exhibition.

The exhibition runs from 27 April to 9 September. Admission £11. Family tickets available.

More information, booking etc.

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execution of 1st duke of monmouthThere can hardly be a more fascinating dramatis personae in London’s rich story than that of the Restoration. Aside from the king himself, we have playwrights, diarists, scientists, architects, building developers, projectors, wheeler-dealers of every stripe. Everybody striving, but striving in a general atmosphere of paranoia and fear. For the issues which dominated this highly politicised, religious and violent of centuries still persisted.

And so we come the legal profession, which was  kept extremely busy. Dozens of barristers making a name for themselves either defending or prosecuting Catholics and recusants, in fact anyone straying from the restored Anglican orthodoxy. From Judge Jeffreys at the pinnacle wielding terrible justice to the prisoners at the bottom. On the rung barely just above them, their own gaolers and executioners. Most notorious of these was Jack Ketch (unknown – 1686). Sometimes referred to John, his surname frequently rendered as “Catch”, his onomatopoeic moniker quickly became the stuff of legend, invoked even by frustrated parents as a warning to miscreant toddlers.

Even though Ketch was a public executioner almost continuously between 1666 and 1678, his background remains a mystery. Date of birth unknown, it’s thought that he came from Ireland. It is known that he lived near Grey’s Inn Road and was buried in Clerkenwell in 1886, predeceasing his wife, Katherine.

With at least eight public executions a year, at Tyburn and elsewhere in the capital, it is certain that Ketch would have despatched hundreds of prisoners, almost all by hanging. Those who were found guilty of treason were also drawn and quartered at his hand. The heads of traitors, as was the custom, were displayed on London Bridge, Temple Bar and other notable landmarks. The corpses of many prisoners who were not quartered, were instead gibbeted, that is to say displayed in a cage which was hung up near busy roadways. In order to make body parts and corpses last longer, the executioner would first immerse them in boiling pitch. Ketch did this at his headquarters in Newgate Prison which hence became known as Jack Ketch’s Kitchen.

Executioner is a macabre profession in any age, and there were many over the years, so why did Ketch become so notorious? First, there was his longevity in the job. Second, he was known to be unpleasant, and very frequently extremely drunk, on and off the job. Third, he was avaricious. He was constantly in dispute with the authorities over payment for quartering and “boylinge” of the bodies. A further stream of revenue, it was customary for the executioner to keep the clothes of the condemned, often very fancy in the case of the wealthy, people preferred to look their best en route to the scaffold. But in addition, the prisoner would often bribe the executioner with as much as he could afford, to despatch him as painlessly and quickly as possible. Ketch was known to milk this particular system in full. One has to wonder, therefore, how he ended up doing a spell in the Marshalsea for debt.

After 1678, Ketch continued to work as an executioner until his death and it’s from this period that almost certainly he derives his notoriety, in particular for his appalling incompetence in the beheadings of William, Lord Russell in 1683 for the Rye House Plot; and the Duke of Monmouth in 1685 for his failed attempt on the throne itself. Beheadings during this period were relatively few, reserved for the high-born only. In earlier times it was customary to engage a specialist, often from the Continent, to do the job. Ketch had no experience as an axe-wielder and so he proved. In the case of Lord Russell, despite being given between ten and thirty guineas (accounts vary) to do a good job, he took at least three blows to sever the noble’s head, the first of which struck Russell on the shoulder! Some say Ketch had been deliberately vindictive, others that he was blind drunk. Perhaps he was both.

Two years later it was Monmouth’s turn. The Duke gave Ketch six guineas with a promise of more from his servant after the act and demanded that he do a better job this time:

Do not serve me as you did my Lord Russel. I have heard you struck him three or four times…

In vain. Ketch took a least five strikes this time. Halfway through he cast down his axe in frustration and was ordered to continue. In the end, he had to finish the task with a knife. The crowd were up in arms. The diarist John Evelyn wrote:

five Chopps … so incens’d the people, that had he not ben guarded & got away they would have torne him to pieces.

A year later, Ketch himself was dead.

But his fame was well established in his own time. Poems, ballads, pamphlets, broadsheets, essays abounded, all laced with hefty dollops of black humour, irony and sarcasm. Within a generation he was resurrected, reinvented as the hangman in Punch and Judy shows, the one whom Mr Punch tricks into hanging himself.

Sources:
Wikipedia, as per.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (sub required), profile by Tim Wales
Newgate: London’s Prototype of Hell by Stephen Halliday

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bust of charles I

Bust of Charles I at the Banqueting House

So said Charles I in the immediate preamble to his losing his life at the executioner’s block outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, a building his father commissioned and that he himself embellished with the help of Peter Paul Rubens. Seconds later it was all over, and the crowd let out a terrible moan, among their number both Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, two young men destined for great things.

30 January 1649 remains one of the most significant dates in British history, which still resonates today. Most people who think about such things, consider themselves to be a Roundhead or a Cavalier. Both Charles and Cromwell are eminently hissable villains, depending on one’s point of view. But it was a sad day, no question, and even the little king’s detractors then and now cannot begrudge the bravery and dignity with which he met his fate.

Contemporaries realised the enormity of the event, which had consequences for everybody, from the Royal family to the man in the street and for every stripe of religion, but in particular Jews (good) and Catholics (bad). The ramifications for our constitution can hardly be overstated.

For Londoners, Charles still lives among us. His portraits are ubiquitous in our galleries. On the streets, we can admire his bust which sits above the entrance of Banqueting House and gaze up at the equestian statue by Hubert Le Sueur in Trafalgar Square. This is the oldest and first equestrian monument of a British monarch. It was cast in the 1630s and positioned at Charing Cross. After the Civil War, the Parliamentarians ordered it destroyed. Disobeying this instruction, the man given the job instead buried it in his garden. After the Restoration, the statue was re-erected in 1675 in its original position on a plinth designed by Sir Christopher Wren and carved by the master sculptor Grinling Gibbons. It defiantly points down Whitehall, past the Banqueting House towards the Houses of Parliament. This is officially the point where all measurements from London are taken, so forever at the epicentre of his Realm, in death Charles has done rather well.

charles I statue

Equestrian statue of Charles I, Trafalgar Square.

There is a good account of the execution here.
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If you are reading this in time, you might like to attend a commemoration of this event by the “Kings Army” who will be marching along the Mall from St James’s Palace on Sunday 30 January (tomorrow as I write). From 11 am. More information here.

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