Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (NPG 211)

Nowadays this portrait is almost inseparably linked to the Diary of Pepys , whose vivid description of the sittings is unusually detailed documentation.  Fuller understanding of both painting and diary, however, has only recently become possible.

Surprisingly, at first consideration in 1858, the Gallery declined it as “the alleged portrait of Samuel Pepys”. Despite the painting’s unbroken family descent, it had appeared at auction ten years earlier only as ‘Portrait of a Musician’.  This led to a period of uncertainty reinforced by the third edition of the Diary, published in 1854. This proposed that the sitter was more likely to be Pepys’s musical friend, Mr Hill. Recently discovered  archival correspondence between the Secretary, George Scharf and Gallery Trustee William Smith, suggests this considerably swayed the Trustees’ judgement.

They had serious doubts also concerning the asking price when the owner, Peter Cunningham, emboldened perhaps by his identification of the piece of music Pepys holds as one of his own settings, first offered the portrait for £200 [figs. 1-3]. Privately William Smith thought the value of even the most important portrait of Pepys “would not be more than 40 pounds”, and when he discovered through Christie’s “the very small sum” for which Cunningham had actually purchased it, he exclaimed to Scharf, “Peter-Peter-very bad boy!”

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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)

Even the painting’s inclusion in the 1857 Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester where its tour guide had heralded the portrait as “our quaint old friend, Pepys” which “will be welcome to us all” was evidently viewed as insufficient substantiation.

When the portrait was offered afresh at 50 guineas in 1866, the Trustees’ caution about the price proved well founded, but they finally acceptedthe painting for the collection. Even so, Scharf’s Memorandum to the Trustees, a rare documentary survival, reveals his continuing anxiety to martial the evidence for the identification convincingly. [fig.4]

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Fig. 4 Memoranda respecting a portrait of Samuel Pepys, by George Scharf, Secretary of the Gallery,
15 February 1866 (NPG Archive NPG46/3/11)

Virtually unknown in his own lifetime, Pepys’s Diary also needed reassessment. It remained overlooked amongst his bequest to Magdalene, Cambridge, until the 19th century, when fresh elucidation of its shorthand [fig. 5] was followed by numerous highly variable editions until a scholarly publication was produced in the 1970s.

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Fig. 5 Shorthand entry for 11 April 1666 from Pepy’s diary.  Reproduced by permission of the Pepy’s Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Wednesday 11 April 1666

To White Hall, having first set my people to worke about setting me rails upon the leads of my wife’s closett, a thing I have long designed, but never had a fit opportunity till now. After having done with the Duke of Yorke, I to Hales’s, where there was nothing found to be done more to my picture, but the musique, which now pleases me mightily, it being painted true. Thence home, and after dinner to Gresham College, where a great deal of do and formality in choosing of the Council and Officers. I had three votes to be of the Council, who am but a stranger, nor expected any. So my Lord Bruncker being confirmed President I home, where I find to my great content my rails up upon my leads. To the office and did a little business, and then home and did a great jobb at my Tangier accounts, which I find are mighty apt to run into confusion, my head also being too full of other businesses and pleasures. This noon Bagwell’s wife come to me to the office, after her being long at Portsmouth. After supper, and past 12 at night to bed.

(Transcription reproduced from the Project Gutenberg

With disarming candour, Pepys himself sometimes confesses in the Diary that he creates confusion, such is his constant fusing of “pleasures and business”.  But few now can doubt his confidence that, despite his exuberant transformation of the sittings into occasions for merry making and music, “the picture goes on the better for it”.