Sex and the city: 1660s London brought to life at National Maritime Museum
Source:theguardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2015-11-16 Size:
“Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (which was rather late for me),” wrote Philip Larkin……

Charles II portrait by John Michael Wright (1617-94) at the National Maritime Museum, London.

“Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (which was rather late for me),” wrote Philip Larkin. But he was wrong. It began in 1660. This was exactly the right moment for the 27-year-old Samuel Pepys, who careered joyously through a suddenly uninhibited London full of beautiful people sensually clad in frills, lace and silk – and that was just the men.

The great cultural change that came about in Britain in 1660 was an escape into sex, glamour, art and science after three decades of violence and religious bigotry. A higher proportion of the population had died in the recent British civil wars than in the first world war – and on home soil, with buildings destroyed and civilians suffering alongside soldiers. Peace brought the military and “godly” rule of Oliver Cromwell. When he died, the young Pepys sailed to Holland with his patron Edward Montagu to bring back Charles Stuart and make him king.

Pepys started a diary that year in which he recorded the seamy, earthy reality behind history’s supposedly important events. Clearly he was not meant to live in Puritan times and the Restoration didn’t come a moment too soon for this lusty man. On the ship to collect Charles, he used a telescope to look at women on a passing merchant vessel. In the Hague, he spent a day making merry with a prostitute in a scene straight out of a Pieter de Hooch painting. The new king turned out to be a man after his own heart, for soon after Charles II got settled in Whitehall Palace Pepys observed the king and his friends chatting with “a pretty woman that they have a fancy to make her husband a cuckold”.

This was Barbara Villiers, the future Lady Castlemaine, mistress to the king, whose sensual, passionate portrait by Peter Lely is one of the most beguiling works in the National Maritime Museum’s fascinating exhibition Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution. It beguiled Pepys too. He saw it in Lely’s studio and wanted a copy to hang at home – something else for his wife Elizabeth to put up with.

Nostalgic radicals may like to think of the civil war era with its Diggers, Ranters and Levellers as a great age of revolution but this exhibition shows that the really revolutionary moment in the birth of modern Britain was the Restoration age, when a libertine king presided over a liberation of culture and society. Women were allowed to appear on stage for the first time, not least the brilliant comic actor Nell Gwyn who appears here naked courtesy of Lely, who portrays her as Venus, lying back confidently on luxuriant pillows, looking frankly out of the painting – presumably at her lover, Charles II.

Portrait of Nell Gwyn, after Sir Peter Lely, c.1678.

You did not have to take your clothes off or bed the king to make it as woman in the Restoration court, although it clearly helped. While Gwyn and other women were performing on the Restoration stage, Aphra Behn was writing for it. Lely, always ready to sexualise his subjects, portrays Behn very differently, as a heroic writer. Pepys was at the heart of this world, filling his diary with copious intimate details in the 1660s as he and “my Lord” Montagu rose together through the free living court and government. But how can you turn a diary into an exhibition? Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution has interactive excerpts to read and audio quotations, portraits and memorabilia of Pepys himself and even examples of the 17th surgical instruments with which he had a gallstone removed – a daring operation long before anaesthetics or antiseptics.

Ouch. And it gets worse. In 1665 the death rates reported by London parishes started to rise alarmingly. Soon the city was stricken by Britain’s last great outbreak of plague.

The Fire of London, September 1666, unknown artist, 17th century.

Sex and death, the great realities, make the world of Pepys raw and immediate. While a surviving 17th century dress and shoes give glimpses of what the women he loved were wearing, a Bill of Mortality from the plague year is powerfully illustrated with skulls, bones and the walking dead. A year after this catastrophe London burned to the ground, its red nights and collapsing buildings painted by Dutch artists who were the photojournalists of their time.

Yet even as disaster struck, the tools were being created that would free people from the disease and chaos of traditional life. Sex and gender were not the only spheres of change in Pepys’s Britain. Science was being born – and Samuel Pepys had a ringside seat. The most astonishing and important thing in this exhibition is probably also one of the least visually glamorous – a first edition of Newton’s Principia, the book that founded modern physics, published by the Royal Society in 1687 with the name of S. Pepys, president of the society, just below Newton’s on its title page.

Pepys loved scientific instruments. He didn’t just use telescopes to peep at women but took a real interest in the optical and calculating devices in this exhibition. Why was the reign of Charles II so explosive in the history of science? A painting shows bewigged courtiers walking up to the new Royal Observatory, built at Greenwich (up the hill from this exhibition) by Wren. The king took a big interest in, and funded, the epochal generation that included Halley and Hooke as well as Newton. As president of the Royal Society Pepys tried to reconcile their antagonisms.

Sex and science, the great motors of what would later be called the Enlightenment, made the lifetime of Pepys revolutionary. Britain was not doing well globally. The Dutch even sailed up the Medway and humiliated the navy where the Spanish Armada had failed. Pepys got sent to Morocco to oversee the abandonment of a failed British colony in Tangiers. In 1688 the Stuarts fell and so did he.

But history is not about the headlines – a restoration, a revolution. It is about a man meeting his friend on Fish Street and sharing a lobster at the Sun inn or putting on his new suit made from a cloak that got “beshitten” in the streets of London. Pepys’ diary is a window onto the physical reality of life written at the exact moment when Newton was showing that everything in the universe has a material cause and effect that human beings can understand. This exhibition is a journey through the age that made us who we are – a secular practical nation.

[Editor] 张艳