Pepys Show

Pepys Show: Preparation work for the National Maritime Museum’s forthcoming Samuel Pepys exhibition

The Pepys Library will be lending items for the National Maritime Museum’s Pepys Exhibition, ‘Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution’, running from 20th November 2015 to 28 March 2016.

Pepys stipulated in two codicils to his will that his library was to be kept in its original state, with nothing is to be added or taken away from the library. This poses a challenge when being involved in exhibition work, but we are able to get involved with exhibitions in alternative ways whilst respecting the conditions upon which Pepys bequeathed his library to Magdalene. This blog post outlines some of the preparation work completed by the library for the exhibition.

Diary Transcription

We shall be lending two volumes of Rev. John Smith’s transcription of Pepys diary to the exhibition. Pepys wrote his diary in a shorthand system devised by a Thomas Shelton (‘Shelton’s shorthand’) and therefore to publish the diary, a transcription needed to be made. In 1819, John Smith, an Undergraduate of St. John’s College, was employed to transcribe the diary out of the shorthand. He was not familiar with the shorthand system and evidently was not told about Shelton’s printed guide to the shorthand which was present on the Pepys Library shelves, therefore he approached the transcription as a code-breaking exercise, using a document which Pepys wrote both in shorthand and in full to aid him. It was a monumental task which took three years to complete, filling fifty four volumes.   These volumes are not part of the Pepys Library’s collection, and therefore we are able to lend two of these for the Pepys exhibition as an important document of ‘Pepysiana’.

In preparation for the transcriptions to be lent, we have been taking ‘profiles’ of the notebooks so that exhibition mounts can be constructed:


A portrait of Pepys, known as the ‘Harwich’ portrait and is part of the college’s art collection rather than the Pepys Library, will be lent for the exhibition. A lot of measuring has been taking place to ensure that the specialist logistics company will be able to pack and transport the item safely and efficiently. The portrait will be lent by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of the college and it is an opportunity for a wider audience to see the portrait in a different setting. We are looking forward to seeing how the portrait will be presented in the National Maritime Museum’s exhibition.


We are able to supply high quality digitised images from the Pepys Library’s books and manuscripts to be used in a variety of imaginative ways in the exhibition, and also in the exhibition catalogue. This involves liaising with our regular photographer, Maciej Pawlikowski, creating a ‘job list’ of items we need him to photograph and marking which pages need digitising with acid-free conservation grade paper. To ensure accuracy for the National Maritime Museum’s exhibition displays and catalogue, we double-check and supply the reference numbers of each item being digitised before transferring the images to the Museum.


We have hosted a group of the National Maritime Museum’s staff in the library to enable them to take in the atmosphere and gather ideas for the overall look and feel of the exhibition. As previously covered in the blog, Pepys collected a lot of ‘everyday’ items from the restoration period, such as chapbooks and broadside ballads in addition to more scholarly works, so there is plenty of visual inspiration available! We are very much looking forward to the exhibition and seeing how the ideas gathered from the Pepys Library have come to fruition at the National Maritime Museum.

Tickets can be booked via the National Maritime Museum website. For Twitter users, all the latest news and events can be found by searching the hashtag #Pepysshow.

by Catherine Sutherland

Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections

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