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Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (NPG 211)

This portrait was sold at auction in 1848 as a ‘Portrait of a Musician’. However, the man who purchased it, Peter Cunningham, quickly identified it as Samuel Pepys. This was based on its ownership history (it had been sold by descendants of Pepys), and the identification of the sheet music as one of Pepys’s own settings. Cunningham offered the portrait to the Gallery for £200 – apparently much more than he had paid for it – but it was declined due to doubts about the identity of the sitter and concerns about the high price. [1][2]

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Left image - Fig. 1 Letter from Peter Cunningham to George Scharf, Secretary of the Gallery, 8th January 1858 (NPG Archive NPG46/3/11)
Right image - Fig. 2 Letter from Peter Cunningham to George Scharf, Secretary of the Gallery, 23rd January 1858 (NPG Archive NPG46/3/11)

Fig. 3 Pencil sketch from Sir George Scharf’s Trustees’ Sketchbook 1, 1857-8, p. 9 (NPG Archive NPG7/1/3/1/2/1)

The portrait was offered to the Gallery again in 1865 by its new owner Robert Cooke. Cooke enclosed in his offer letter the extracts from Pepys’s diary in which he related sitting for the portrait: ‘I... do almost break my neck, looking over my shoulder to make the posture for him to work by’.  Cooke’s asking price was much lower, and the portrait was accepted into the Collection. [3]

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Fig. 4 Shorthand entry for 11 April 1666 from Pepy’s diary.  Reproduced by permission of the Pepy’s Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

In his own lifetime Pepys gained renown as a high-ranking naval administrator. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that his diary came to prominence in English literature, when the shorthand was deciphered by a Cambridge undergraduate, leading to its partial publication 1815. It wasn’t published in full until 1983. In the diary, Pepys records that he made of the sittings for this portrait into occasions for merry making and music, and that “the picture goes on the better for it”. [4]


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