Friday, November 27, 2015

"And so to Greenwich..." : 'Pepyshow' at National Maritime Museum

Pepyshow was the name of a community drama group in the 80s who put lots of shows on at The Albany. They were based at Pepys Estate. The clue is in the name. Samuel Pepys was Secretary to the Admiralty and used to spend a lot of time in Deptford, keeping an eye on the navy's operations at Deptford's Royal Dockyard (now Convoys Wharf), visiting his friend John Evelyn and cavorting with Mrs Bagnell, the wife of a shipwright. Hence the streets and tower blocks near the river in Deptford are named after all the prominent people of that time – including ships captains and slave traders such as Hawkins and Drake.

Under Pepys' stewardship, an ambitious new shipbuilding programme was initiated on the orders of Charles II, its purpose to counter the threat of the Dutch navy and a rapidly expanding French fleet. The construction of the 'thirty ship' programme represented the pinnacle of English shipbuilding practice. The famous diarist's adminstration helped carry the Royal Navy to a position of global maritime supremacy, and he regarded this work as his greatest lifetime achievement.

Pepys was also President of the Royal Society during a time of hugely significant scientific exploration (including the work of John Evelyn), and he was Master of Trinity House, founded at Deptford Strand. So you'd expect to see a mention of Deptford in this new exhibition about Pepys at the Maritime Museum, wouldn't you?

But no, true to form (like most of the other general exhibits in the museum), there is hardly a SINGLE mention of Deptford in Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution.

Considering this is a maritime museum which bills itself as the "gateway to intrepid exploration and endeavour at sea", the section entitled 'Control of the Seas' which covers Pepys' role in the navy and the consequent "development of Britain's place as a maritime, economic and political force on the world stage" is surprisingly small. The sections on plague and fire are similarly small and underwhelming, despite the exhibition's title.

There is a mention of his good friend Evelyn, also a famous diarist, in the penultimate section 'Science and Society' where an original copy of Evelyn's great work 'Sylva' is displayed. But no mention of Evelyn's home and experimental gardens at Sayes Court in Deptford, next door to the Royal Dockyard – and just a stone's throw from Greenwich.

An interactive map of important London places is on display in almost every room, but does not extend beyond London Bridge. Our search for any reference to Deptford exposed a map of Harwich in the navy section which bore the microscopic legend "presented to Pepys as Secretary of the Admiralty, President of the Royal Society, and Master of Trinity House of Deptford Strand".

And if you pay the extra £2.50 for an audio guide on top of the advertised £12.50 ticket price, you'll hear an actor reading exceedingly short excerpts from the famous diary. Next to the copy of Sylva, the talking guide begins "And so to Deptford by water..." as Pepys heads down to see Evelyn. That's it for Deptford.

There is much emphasis on Charles II's mistresses (while missing out a lot of them) but no evidence of Pepys' womanising with Mrs Bagwell. His love of theatre and music takes up a lot of space with a shadow theatre presentation of small segments of Macbeth and Dryden, but the main focus is on the 'repositioning' of the British monarchy after the English Civil war, aka the Restoration. Interesting as it is (unless you're particularly phobic about the monarchy), the information is still paltry and confusing.

They certainly make a big deal, as you enter the show, out of a grand painting of Charles I being be-headed, with special spotlighting on parts of the painting that tell the story and provide a context, all of which you could easily miss if you arrive before or after it's scheduled to be 'interactive'. We're not sure if we heard or saw the word 'Catholic' mentioned in the entire show, but see for yourselves.

The exhibition is designed around what artefacts were available. Pepys' actual diary is not one of those, unfortunately, as Pepys' will confined it to Magdalene College, Cambridge, never to be shown elsewhere. Extracts available either by audio or interactive screen are limited, yet the scope of the exhibition covers before and after Pepys kept his diary (which he stopped long before he died). Even so, the British Museum's 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' managed to say more about the whole world than this show does about the Restoration with 200.

If you really want to know what was going on, when, where and who, you'll have to buy the book, which is £25 (£30 hardback). According to the index, there are about four mentions of Deptford in it, which is a vast improvement on the exhibition itself. They're also selling a comprehensively illustrated tome called 'Pepys Navy' by naval historian David Davies which has countless references to Deptford, but it's displayed on an unreachable high shelf – as if they're unsure what a visitor to a maritime museum might actually be interested in.

Merchandise consists of expensive metal fire buckets painted grey (!), and tins of Twinings English Breakfast Tea. The important fact that tea was first introduced to the UK by Charles II's queen, the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, is one that you could easily miss in the exhibition unless you'd read the caption for the Chinese porcelain teapot lurking among the display of silver coffee pots.

As for the flavour of Pepys and the people he dealt with in his day to day dealings...well we still have the diaries. The value of this exhibition is its political overview, and what the diary did not cover when Pepys stopped writing about London. But generally you'd be at a loss to find any evidence of ordinary people in this entire show.


Greenwich would be nothing without Deptford, and it's about time the museum acknowledged that fact. Hopefully, Deptford's homegrown projects will redress the balance in the future, offering a better understanding of the past and the part that ordinary people played in it aside from the political machinations of the time (though these cannot be ignored, especially now). The Lenox Project not only wants to construct a replica of the first ship in Pepys' thirty ship programme, but also intends to build a Deptford Dockyard Museum.

Most of the artefacts would have to come from the National Maritime Museum which holds them in storage never to be displayed. Whilst its less prominent staff are enthusiastic about the project, the snobby upper echelons have so far refused to support it. Meanwhile, John Evelyn's legacy will be celebrated by a centre of excellence created by Sayes Court Garden CIC, who are currently working with Greenwich University.

Both projects are still waiting to get started after their ambitious plans were successfully made a condition of the planning permission given to the Convoys Wharf's Hong Kong based conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa by the Mayor of London in March 2014 (after the decision was snatched by the GLA from the hands of Lewisham Council in 2013 because they were supposedly taking too long to decide)...

If you feel proud of Deptford's past achievements as an international powerhouse of scientific ingenuity and industrial prowess, and want to see it celebrated whilst the site gets buried under 48 and 38 storey 'luxury homes', these are the projects that need your support.

The Lenox Project CIC:
Sayes Court Garden CIC:

No comments:

Post a Comment