An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 124

Clinton Howell Antiques - April 19, 2021 - Issue 124
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) is a well known name in English history although his renown is in some part due to his diary, written in code, that talked about his attempted (and real) dalliances with servant girls in his employ. This view coupled with his name, which is pronounced "peeps", has a comical bent, but Pepys was not a comical figure. Along with the diarist, John Evelyn, the diaries of these two men give us a great view of England during the Restoration of the monarchy beginning in Britain in 1660. It was a period of considerable upheaval as there were a surfeit of issues arising from the disenfranchisement of Royalists during the Cromwell Protectorate, punishment for those who did not support the monarchy, as well as the plague (1665) and the great fire of London (1666). If we think we are living in tumultuous times now, the decade of 1660-70 is a contender for a decade long disaster film.

We know about Pepys because of Edward Montagu, later the Earl of Sandwich, who helped negotiate the physical return of Charles II to English soil. Montagu was married to a Pepys and the family connection earned Samuel a job at the Admiralty Board and it was there that Pepys made his mark, at least in the bureaucracy of the government. The Royal Navy had not fared well under the Protectorate and Pepys was the right man for the job to get the fleet in order. His diary reports on finding the fleet in horrible condition and having to deal with lazy and corrupt officials. Pepys reorganization was in the nick of time as ongoing hostilities with the Dutch over trade continued to arise through the 1660's with the English having success in defeating the Dutch and, in turn, being humiliated by them, all of which Pepys remarks on in his diaries. The early successes led to the ceding of New York to the British in 1664, something that could be directly attributable to Pepys refurbishment of the navy. The world works in mysterious ways--otherwise those of us living in the U.S. might be speaking Dutch if it hadn't been for Mr. Pepys.  

Pepys's adult life (1660-1703) is concurrent with what I consider the seed of both enlightened and industrial Britain. The establishment of the Royal Society in 1660, given a Royal Charter in 1661, gave the green light to sustained scientific research that would inevitably lead to greater understanding of the physical world. It seems simple to us that there had to be experimentation to understand how combustion worked, for example, but the explanation of such helped lead to a mechanical engine which in turn spurred the search for coal which in turn caused wealth creation for people who might be sitting on a coal seam. Indeed, a grandson of Edward Montagu, Pepys's benefactor, Edward Wortley Montagu, known because of his marriage to another diary writer, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, benefitted from owning "useless" pasture lands inherited as a younger son which were rich in coal. The cause and effect of the benefits of scientific research and experimentation included medicine, architecture, mathematics--it's a long list, but it also created new wealth--the ingredients for a whole new and powerful group also known as the middle class.

Pepys had a window on the genesis of this forthcoming industrial world. (He was elected a member of the Royal Society in 1665 and was President of the Royal Society in 1684-86.) I was lucky enough to get a free tour of "Pepys's London", a walking tour of what the daily experience might have been like for Pepys in his era. It was offered by Andrew Thatcher, a friend of my brother, David, who offered these tours when he spent time in England--Andrew was a world traveler and visited many places around the world on his bicycle. Andrew died last year, but his tour lives on in my mind as he guided me and my brother, David, around the City. The day was largely spent ambling through the empty City--it was Saturday--looking at architecture, churches mostly, many of them designed by Christopher Wren or Nicholas Hawksmoor. We also walked by John Soane's, Bank of England building, as imposing, monolithic and impregnable-seeming as the Tower of London. We touched on Billingsgate, the old fish market, and Andrew delved into how many churches after the Great Fire were never rebuilt as many had existed side by side, a concept that seems foreign to us, but which speaks of the strong hold religion had on society in the last half of the 17th century. As it was, I saw no great furniture while wandering the streets, but the history of Britain--significantly the era that I love which is the late 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, was made plain in what we saw.  A short history of Parliament during 1660.,_1st_Earl_of_Sandwich  Self explanatory  Self explanatory.*.html A short history of the last skirmish, 1667, between the British and Dutch.