These days, I approach major exhibitions dealing with subjects I know something about with a considerable degree of trepidation. Maybe there’ll be massive omissions, or catastrophic errors of emphasis, that wreck the whole thing. Perhaps right-on organisers will have applied a gut-wrenchingly awful, unhistorical, and anachronistic interpretative slant. Maybe the layout of the exhibition space and/or the exhibits themselves will be disastrously misconceived. Perhaps it’ll pitch the subject matter in such a dumbed down, lowest-common-denominator way that it makes ITV’s Saturday night schedule look like The Ascent of Man. Maybe it’ll have one of those patronising audio tours voiced by an actress who failed the auditions for Downton Abbey. And so forth.
Consequently, I went along to the official opening of the National Maritime Museum’s new winter exhibition, Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire and Revolution – aka #PepysShow – with somewhat ambivalent expectations. Quite apart from the issues I’ve listed above, there was the particularly awkward social dilemma that I knew several of those who had put the exhibition together. If it was truly awful, should I dare tell the truth in this blog? Should I risk being ostracised by those good folk, and being banned for ever from the gorgeous acres of Greenwich?
Fear not, gentle reader, all was well – for pretty much the first thing one sees on entering the shop at the entrance to the exhibition is my book Pepys’s Navy, prominently displayed.
Therefore, I can say categorically that this is the greatest exhibition that London – nay, the world – has witnessed since the much less impressive affair in the Crystal Palace in 1851.
In case any of you doubt my objectivity, I call as witnesses the other invitees and fellow members of the prawn sandwich brigade who attended the opening – although whether it’s appropriate to use that term in this instance might be doubtful, as one of them was the current Earl of Sandwich himself, who is surely the ultimate arbiter of whether something is or is not a prawn sandwich event. (Another of the attendees was Jeremy Paxman – who really does pull those facial expressions all the time, so it’s not just an affectation for the TV.)
Anyway, to the exhibition itself. Even laying aside the bias that I’ve now declared, this is very impressive on almost all criteria – beginning with the execution of Charles I (which Pepys famously bunked off school to witness) and running through the Commonwealth to the Restoration, where the focus switches to a thematic approach based on the principal interests of Pepys’ life. Cue sections on the royal court and mistresses, the theatre, science, London civic life, and so on. Many of the exhibits are absolutely fascinating, and often stunning – ranging from the very grand (such as Charles II’s huge coronation portrait) to the intimate (a snuffbox given to Nell Gwyn by Charles II) to the humbling (Sir Isaac Newton’s telescope) to the globally important (e.g. the letter of invitation to William of Orange from the ‘immortal seven’). Several of them gave even this jaded old veteran of seventeenth century studies pause for thought, and some new insights into the period. For example, James II’s wedding outfit and light cavalry armour (the latter being the last armour ever made for a British monarch) made me realise that he was much shorter and slighter than I’d always imagined him to be. You really do learn something new every day.
The centrepieces of the exhibition, both in a thematic sense and in terms of their physical placing within the space available, are the displays on the Plague – possibly a bit understated – and the Great Fire of London, with a decent CGI show accompanied by readings from Pepys’ diary, together with a large section on Pepys and the Navy, which obviously gladdened my heart. The latter includes the superb contemporary model of the St Michael, and the great Verrio painting of ‘The Sea Triumph of Charles II’, originally from Windsor Castle; both of these will be featuring heavily in my new book, Kings of the Sea, so it was great to see them ‘in the flesh’. Pepys’ trip to Tangier in 1683 is also well covered, and his shorthand ‘Tangier journal’ is on display. However, this serves to emphasise the most obvious omission from the exhibition – namely, the diary itself. Here, though, the organisers were hamstrung by Pepys, who specified that the contents of his library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, the diary included, should never leave the premises. Honestly, some people just show no consideration whatsoever for those who come after them…
If I was going to be nitpicking, it wouldn’t really be about the omissions – after all, these are principally a matter of interpretation and personal opinion, but I’d have liked to have seen, say, more on Pepys’ family background, and, obviously, a lot more on his dealings with the officers and men of the navy (e.g. couldn’t there have been just one more of the ‘Flagmen of Lowestoft’ portraits, say the one of Sir William Berkeley, to flag up the ‘gentlemen vs tarpaulins’ issue that occupied Pepys for so long?). But the exhibition complies with the modern orthodoxy that such things have to be minimalist: hence lots of empty space, both between exhibits and on the walls, and very brief explanatory panels (although, thankfully, the latter aren’t dumbed down, and are more Ascent of Man than X Factor). I know this is probably heresy in museum circles these days, but surely it’s possible to fit in a bit more without reverting to Pitt Rivers Museum jumble?
Still, none of this detracts from an exhibition that undoubtedly has to be rated a triumphant success (as does the splendid accompanying catalogue), and which should fulfil the vital objective, as far as I’m concerned, of raising awareness of the late seventeenth century as a whole, and especially its naval history. And, of course, if only a tiny number of those who visit it buy that rather good looking book on Pepys’s Navy…ahem.