Living in interesting times

Samuel Pepys was familiar to me as the writer of an entertaining diary which gives us a picture of life in 1600s Restoration London. I expected to find, when I recently read Samuel Pepys, a Biography by Richard Ollard, that the subject was a rich socialite with time on his hands to enjoy all manner of entertainments. Instead, I discovered a much richer picture of a person of humble origins who was significant in establishing the means by which a well-organised navy could function to defend English borders and trade.

Pepys’s administrative talents enabled him to cross class barriers in ways I thought were not possible in those times. His skills were recognised by Charles II, even as Pepys struggled to get funding and a serious approach to the navy from a king who was continually distracted by pleasurable pursuits. Pepys was not averse to pleasurable pursuits, either, with sexual exploits (and exploitations) disturbing to the modern reader. He lined his own pockets with bribes – which seemed a common practice expected of people in office.

Pepys was helped by people who recognised his talents and supported his education and the positions he held. Similarly, Pepys helped others in the same way, even some who tried his patience at times. His support helped those people to better their lives. He supported the education of boys at the Royal Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital. It was important that educated people were available to provide effective roles such as his administrative work with the navy.

Pepys had valued friendships with a varied group of intellectuals. He collected a significant library of books and art, carefully housed and protected through plague, fire and political intrigue and surviving until today. I was fascinated to read that, while incarcerated in The Tower during the Papal Purge, he was able to use contacts to clear his name, giving clear instructions about how to conduct the investigation into the allegations. This uncovered (for me) an underworld of criminal intrigue with connections extending into France.

Pepys was frustrated by the tendency of aristocratic ship captains who took it upon themselves to mount ill-advised attacks on Dutch ships, often with disastrous consequences. In one such case the Dutch retaliated, sailing up the Thames and inflicting considerable damage and causing panic among the citizens with those who were able retreating into the countryside for safety. Pepys preferred the “tarpaulins”, sea captains who had worked their way up from ship’s boy and who knew how to handle a ship and its crew.

Pepys travelled to Tangier which was, for a time, in British hands, and to Spain briefly before sailing home. He truly lived in interesting times, which doesn’t seem to have been the curse it is purported to be.

Ollard’s writing style makes the reading of the biography a treat. I was particularly taken by his description of the clock as a device which at first entertained with its workings before its effects in “dismembering” existence were felt. The same could be said of many technological developments today.

This biography has been sitting amongst my history books for many years waiting for me to read it. More recently, I picked up a pictorial publication by the National Portrait Gallery entitled Pepys and his Contemporaries by Richard Ollard. It refreshed my recollections of the biography and the impressive variety of people who were influences in Pepys’s life. It concludes with an essay by Catharine MacLeod entitled “Pepys and the Resoration Art World” detailing Pepys’s relationships with portrait painters, particularly, who he commissioned. It also mentions Pepys’s enjoyment of music; he was impressed that the painter Cooper was a skilled musician and speaker of French. In the early portrait of Pepys by John Hales, Pepys is shown holding a piece of music: “his own composition, a setting of a poem by William Davenant, ‘Beauty Retire’ “. The collections of portraits, seascapes, landscapes and prints Pepys left are significant resources.

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