Friday, 15 January 2016

The National Maritime Museum

Romney Road
Greenwich SE10 9NF

Thursday 14 January 2016
Linda and I have been taking tentative steps towards the 'big ones', which will clearly require several visits, and so we decided that the time had come to get to Greenwich.  Despite the fact that there are favourable offers for multiple venues in this heritage-soaked area, our brains get a bit full, and so we visited only the NMM, and only a tiny part of it at that.  We certainly wouldn't have enjoyed Cutty Sark and the Observatory as well, so we are saving them for another day (preferably a sunny, picnic-in-the-park day).
Indeed, given the vast expanse of the Maritime Museum, we resolved to visit only 'Revolution. Plague, Fire', the special exhibition about Samuel Pepys which is in the Sammy Ofer wing.  It's 'no photographs' territory, but you can find some images at the Museum's website.

Less that 10% of the exhibition is about Pepys' work for the Navy. But on the other hand,  this is the Museum we visited to see an exhibition about Tin Tin, so clearly the planners feel no need to stick close to the main message of the Museum; and it is easier to view lots of material about Pepys in one place than by calling it all up at the British Library.  It is an exhibition about the man and the remarkable times through which he lived.

It starts with, and indeed the whole exhibition is rather dominated by the sound from, the execution of Charles I.  Pepys witnessed the death at the ago of 14, and approved of it, being at the time an anti monarchist.  His time at Cambridge University would have strengthened the Parliamentarian sympathies, but once the Restoration occurred, he worked closely with the King and especially the King's brother, James Duke of York, the Head of the Navy. He was first Clerk and then Secretary to the Navy Board from 1660 till 1688. His salary of £33 6s.8d was helpfully reckoned to be about £66,500.00 in todays money, not bad for the son of a tailor

The Restoration, the Court of Charles II and his many mistresses and pleasures form a large part of the story.  An enjoyable section had Pepys' comments on theatre productions he had seen, illustrated by silhouette scenes from Macbeth and other plays. 

It was in this section that we met Elizabeth, Pepys' long suffering wife, who was a child of 14 when they married in 1655 and who had to put up with his constant philandering. We then move on to the Plague and the Fire, both well illustrated by sections from the Diary, and some good graphics as well.  The deaths from Plague, for example, are clearly linked to the hot weather of summer, which must have helped to confirm the view that 'bad air' and 'stenches' caused the disease. 

The third of the disasters of these years was the raid by the Dutch into the Medway, where several important ships were sunk, and the Royal Charles was stolen away to the Netherlands.  We had met the ship before when, renamed from being the Naseby, she had brought the restored King home. One of the objects on display was a huge link from the chain which should have protected the Medway anchorage. That was, however, the low point for the Royal Navy, and there is a huge painting of Charles II in glory after the 1674 defeat of the Dutch.

With Pepys effectively in charge of the Navy, we were shown maps, navigational equipment, and material about the Joint Stock Companies which organised trade:  the Royal African Company, the Levant Company and so on.  In 1683, Pepys made a trip to Tangier.  This had been part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles, but it had proved too expensive to defend and not very useful (the trans-Sahara trade had been very much overtaken by the sea routes to West Africa and beyond). So Pepys was sent to evacuate the town and destroy the fortifications, to prevent their use by pirates. (I shall interject here the surprise I felt at seeing the Museum's shops FULL of stuff about pirates, given that a perennial task of the nation's navy, from the 14th century wool smugglers to the Somalian pirates of the 21st century, has been to grapple with these far-from-cuddly pests)

It is a natural progression from navigation to Science more generally.  Pepys was elected to the Royal Society in 1665, only five years after its foundation, and became its president in 1684.  So we had lots of pictures of the greats of science, including Halley and Newton, (Newton's Principia was published when Pepys was President of the RS) Pepys dined with Flamsteed at the Royal Observatory in 1697, just 20 years after it had been established for the purposes of navigation.  He also knew Napier, father of the logarithm. 

By this stage in his career, the widowed Pepys was certainly among the 'great and good': he became an MP, first for Castle Rising in Norfolk and then for Harwich. He was Master of Trinity House and of the Clothworkers' Company, to whom he gave an immense silver gilt dish, jug and so on. He was a governor of Christ's Hospital Mathematical School, and there was a charming picture of the boys and girls, in their pale blue uniforms, being presented to the King, with Pepys, holding a map, among them. There was a slight hiccup when, in 1679, he was imprisoned for plotting with the French, but he was released soon afterwards.

The penultimate section is again about Revolution and civil strife, and the abdication of James II. The Popish Plot of 1678 sets the scene, demonstrating the kind of panic that can be aroused by a really convincing conspiracy theory, with shadowy foreigners and hidden arms caches. Following the death of the (probably) protestant Charles II, his illegitimate son the Earl of Monmouth tried to take over the throne.  The bloodstained crushing of the rebellion led to the accession of James II, Pepys' boss at the navy.  But the threat of Catholic dominance was too much for many of the elite, and the birth of a boy, who would supersede James' Protestant daughters, sealed James' fate. There was a picture of Mary of Modena and one of the supposed 'warming pan baby', the future 'Old Pretender'.  Not that he gave up easily:  on display is the armour that he wore at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Finally we came to some statistics and examples from the diary itself:  he left 2971 books to his nephew, who passed them to his old College at Cambridge, where they remain. The number of transcripts, books, biographies and commentaries which have followed is also immense.

So Pepys resigned from his work with the Navy in 1689, moved to Clapham, and died in 1703, aged 70.  He had lived through Royal dictatorship, civil war, republic and restored monarchy, and witnessed two revolutions, one bloodier than the other.  But as the exhibition makes clear, his value as a witness is mainly for the personal and domestic detail of his everyday life during the nine years that he wrote his diary.  And you can get the whole thing free to your e-reader any time you want.

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