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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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200_Portrait of Samuel Pepys, Attributed to John Riley, c.1680, The Clothworkers Company

Pepys, Attr to John Riley, c.1680, © The Clothworkers Company

Can any Londoner have led a more interesting life than Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703)? Violence, tragedy, pain and enlightenment. He experienced all in good measure and at very close quarters.

Pepys wrote what became a famous diary, he buried his cheese during the Great Fire and he canoodled with the maid. That is what most people know about this man. He was by no means great in the way Wellington, Nelson were great. Or hugely talented like Shakespeare, Hogarth and Wren. Or a great brain box like Newton. But he was an important and influential figure in his day, he mixed with the best, had the ear of kings, was a more than competent administrator. And from our point of view, he was a Londoner of great note. Literally.

A new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum – Plague, Fire and Revolution – celebrates the life of Samuel Pepys. But it is as much about his times as it is about the man himself. But what times they were!

The English Civil War; The regicide of Charles I; The Great Plague; The Great Fire of London; The re-building of London; The wars with the Dutch; The Glorious Revolution. Pepys directly influenced some: he was touched by them all.

Painting of the Fire of London, 1666. Artist unknown. © National Maritime Museum

Painting of the Fire of London, 1666. Artist unknown. © National Maritime Museum

These momentous events are here represented and celebrated. Portraits, panoramas, print, costume, pottery, armour and personal objects all combine to give you a strong sense of Pepys’s world, that is to say the world of the 17th century ruling class in London. The people Pepys rubbed shoulders with were kings and princes, scientists and admirals. Never has there been such a concentration of eminence, ambition and talent. But it wasn’t all blood, guts and distaster. The emergence of London as a world city. The era was characterised by the emergence of international trade and modern scientific discovery. Exotic consumer goods – tea, tobacco, coffee. All of these things are represented in this show which to sum up in a word: lavish.

Wedding outfit of James II. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Wedding outfit of James II. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Memoirs relating to the state of the Royal Navy of England for ten years determined December 1688 by Samuel Pepys © The National Maritime Museum.

Memoirs relating to the state of the Royal Navy of England for ten years determined December 1688 by Samuel Pepys © National Maritime Museum.

Pepys's tobacco box. © The Clothworkers Company.

Pepys’s tobacco box. © The Clothworkers Company.

Chinese teapot, mid 17C. © The Burghley House Collection.

Chinese teapot, mid 17C. © The Burghley House Collection.

The curators have gathered together a group of objects from their own archives and combined them with material from the Royal Collection, Museum of London, livery companies and elsewhere to serve up a true feast. A very accessible, informative and enjoyable show.

 

Samuel Pepys – Plague, Fire and Revolution at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich runs until 28 March 2016. Adult entry is £12. Free for Friends, half price for Art Fund members.

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Uniform terraced town houses emerged in London immediately after the Great Fire. The government recognised both the urgency of regeneration for the thousands of now-homeless families, but also the requirement that this activity needed to be strictly regulated to eliminate the factors which contributed to the Fire in the first place. The Rebuilding Act of 1667 laid down the rules for domestic accommodation. Depending on the area and type of street, houses were specified as being of the First Sort (two storeys plus basement and garret), the Second Sort (three storeys plus basement and garret) and the Third Sort (four storeys plus basement and garret).

Projectors such as Nicholas Barbon and others set to work. Terraced housing proliferated through the late Stuart and Georgian periods, all complying with the Act. There are many of these rows of houses in London today, very fine examples to be found in Spitalfields and the Temple district (both areas untouched by the Fire), but elsewhere too. A good one is the Benjamin Franklin House in Charing Cross, recently covered.

Update: Good coverage on this and subsequent legislation by buildings sleuth Ellen Leslie, here.

london terraced housing

Specified dwellings of three sorts under the Rebuilding Act (1667). RIBA Library.

london terrace houses

This house of the Third Sort in Buckingham Street by Nicholas Barbon was brand new when Samuel Pepys lived in it between 1679 and 1688.

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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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A rich mix this week. Most, but not all, of these are linked directly from this blog, in the right column. The Diary of Samuel Pepys and Lee Jackson’s Cat’s Meat Soup ought to be read daily. The former has terrific hot-link popups with useful info that add context. And Lee often posts several times a day with a rich and eclectic mix of diagrams, photos and quotes, often amusing.

From the Archives: The Silvertown Explosion by Caroline’s Miscelleny
The Bank of England in Ruins by Georgian London
Pray Get Me a Glass of Brandy… by the Artist’s Progress
(full pdf of this, with illustrations, here (Sketches of Married Life))
Working Children of the 19th Century by Victorianist
Bonfire Night in the 1880s by Victorianist
Look What They Found in Ye Olde Tudor Family Attic (Part 2) by Tudor Tutor
The Diary of Samuel Pepys for 6 November 1667   is a particularly rich entry
Aldersgate Underground Bomb by Lee Jackson
Coldbath Fields by Lee Jackson

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Snipe Top 5: Arty London Churches by Michael Pollitt on Snipe
Shopping, Street Vendors and Markets by Victorianist
Award-Winning Thames. What was it like in 1870? by Victorianist
From the Archives: Martial Bourdain by Caroline’s Miscellany
Coffee Houses by Lee Jackson
Sights of London via Canaletto by Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide (note disrespectful comment about London’s aesthetic beauty!)

My knowledge of Restoration London is over-scant by my own lights, something I fully intend to put right in the future. Wren, Hooke, Newton, Hawksmoor, Dryden, Sheridan, Evelyn… such a rich vein… and on, and on … and Pepys. There is a web site I rather enjoy that it totally devoted to Pepys’s diary. I can’t really list it on the Roundup because I think it is a “proper” web site rather than a blog and is in Pepys’s own words: Samuel Pepys’s Blog from Beyond the Grave, so to speak. Anyway, I’ve added it to the blog roll. The Diary of Samuel Pepys.

The Gentleman Administrator has closed that blog and relaunched as In Pursuit of History. We’ll follow with interest: buon fortuna!

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