Friday 8 April 2016

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution - Book review

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution, edited by Margarette Lincoln. London: Thames and Hudson, 2015. ISBN 978-0500518144, 288 pages. £29.95

This book was published to coincide with an exhibition of the same name at the National Maritime Museum, which was superb. The book looks at the late Stuart period through the prism of Samuel Pepys, who aged 15 witnessed the execution of King Charles I. It covers from that point to his death in 1703.

The book is divided into five sections, each section has three or four chapters and ends with “Objects in Focus”. The five sections are: 

1. Turbulent Times - for which the objects in focus include among other things, the iconic painting of the Execution of Charles I, a set of medical instruments for performing a lithotomy, a nice set of pikeman’s armour, the gloves that Charles is supposed to have given Bishop Juxon, and from the Museum of London a knitted waistcoat that Charles is supposed to have worn to the scaffold. 

2.  The Restoration – here the objects in focus include the painting of Charles II’s Embarkation at Scheveningen, and Charles’s cavalcade through the City of London. On the costume front you have Edmund Verney’s 1662 wedding suit, on loan from the National Trust, it is a supreme example of the heigh of the fashion for short doublets and petticoat breeches. There is an article online on its conservation by Rosemary Weatherall (2014). Matching this splendour is the silver tissue dress from the Museum of Fashion at Bath. It the book it is pictured by itself, but for the exhibition it was displayed with a stunning lace collar from the Bowes Collection at the neck. 

3. Pepys and the Navy – the chapters here cover not only the whole debacle of the Medway, but also Pepys work in Tangier. The objects in focus include a pair of his green tinted spectacles, a variety of naval instruments and new fangled tea and coffee pots.
4. Scientific Enquiry – This was the time of the foundation of the Royal Society, and the objects in focus include Napier’s bones, and Morland’s calculating machine (which Pepys described as “very pretty, but not very useful”), there are also sundials and quadrants, microscopes and telescopes.

5. Revolution and Pepys’s Retirement – Here the objects in focus include the wedding suit worn by James II when, as Duke of York, he married Mary of Modena in 1673, coved in silver and silver-gilt thread the base fabric is wool. There is also James II’s armour (breastplate, helmet and gauntlet) and buff coat made for him in 1686, the last suit of armour made for an English monarch.

The book is a delight, well worth the price, and I am very glad I actually got to see the exhibition. 

Rosamund Weatherall  2014 A Hidden History at Claydon House: The elaborate 17th-century wedding suit of Edmund Verney.  National Trust, Arts, Building, Collections Bulletin, Autumn issue, article pages 14 to 15.

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