Samuel Pepys by John Hayls

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    Samuel Pepys,    by John Hayls,    1666,    NPG 211,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
The famous diary writer Samuel Pepys, who witnessed the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London.
Samuel Pepys
by John Hayls
oil on canvas, 1666
29 3/4 in. x 24 3/4 in. (756 mm x 629 mm)
NPG 211
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 6 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) is best remembered for the diary he kept from 1660 to 1669. In it, he described two critical events in English history, the Great Plague, which struck London in 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666.  

Pepys’s diary is probably the most famous diary written in English. He was a skilled writer who could observe events and recall them in detail. Today, his diary provides us with an important record of life in Britain in the 1660s.

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    Samuel Pepys,    by John Hayls,    1666,    NPG 211,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Samuel Pepys, by John Hayls, 1666

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a minute. What can you see?

    • Samuel Pepys is dressed in a loose robe, a white shirt with large ruffles at the cuffs and a scarf knotted around his neck.
    • The robe would have been worn at home as a sort of luxurious dressing gown. Pepys’s diary tells us he hired it specially to be painted in for the portrait.
    • Pepys is also wearing a wig. This would have been expensive and, along with his fine clothes, tells us that Pepys was wealthy.
    • His clothes and wig are fashionable for the time. Pepys had a strong, lifelong interest in clothes. This may have been because his father was a tailor.
    • Pepys is holding a page of sheet music.
    • He believed music was an important art that could change lives. He played a variety of instruments, attended many concerts and kept a library of music scores. 
    • This page is from a piece of music he wrote himself.
    • In his diary, Pepys describes how music was an important part of sitting for the portrait. He says he made the sittings into ‘occasions for merry-making and music’ and that ‘the picture goes on the better for it’. 
    • Pepys is looking over his shoulder which he found very uncomfortable. In his diary, he says: ‘I ... almost break my neck looking over my shoulders to make the posture for [the artist] to work by.’
    • The Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. introduced a sense of movement and liveliness to the portrait and enabled the sheet of music to be seen clearly. The turn of Pepys’s body also helped to show off the luxurious robe he had hired. 

Who was Samuel Pepys?

  • Samuel Pepys was born and lived in London. Although his family was not powerful, his extended family included influential people who helped him make progress in the world.  
  • He began writing his famous diary on 1 January 1660 and continued until May 1669.
  • His diary covers everything from details about his private life, including his love affairs and sexual abuse of women, to events of national significance. He also featured some significant people in British history, such as Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most famous scientists of all time, and Sir Christopher Wren, who helped to rebuild London after the Great Fire. 
  • When the Great Plague took hold in London in 1665, King Charles II and other high-ranking people left the city. Pepys stayed, providing an account of living with a horrifying and deadly epidemic. On 16 October 1665 he wrote:
But, Lord! How empty the streets are and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets full of sores ...
  • The Great Fire of London broke out on 2 September 1666. Pepys vividly described four days and nights when the fire raged, destroying most of the city.
  • Pepys did all he could to stop the fire, advising on the pulling down of houses to stop the fire spreading. As the flames approached his own London home, he saved his wine and prized Italian Parmesan cheese by burying them in his garden. 
  • On 2 September, he wrote about what he saw:
Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river … poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them.
  • In 1679, Pepys was arrested and sent to the Tower of London. He was charged with piracy, for stealing goods taken from Dutch ships while he was working for the Navy The part of a country’s armed forces that fights at sea, and the ships that it uses. . His diary tells us this was true.
  • He also profited from the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. through his business investments.
  • Pepys’s diary was written in a sort of shorthand – like a code. It did not become famous until the 1800s, when the text was deciphered, and was only published in full in 1983.  
  • As well as providing us with first-hand accounts of significant historical events, Pepys became influential as an MP, and helped turn the navy into an efficient and highly professional fighting force.
  • He was also president of the Royal Society, which brought together leading scientific minds of the day.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • Pepys sat for this portrait in March 1666, at a time when the worst of the Great Plague was over but before the Great Fire of London.
  • His diary tells us that the portrait was Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. by Pepys. He loved John Hayls’s portrait of his wife so asked for a portrait of himself too.
  • He was 33 years old at the time the portrait was made. His career was on the rise, and he was feeling confident and living life to the full.


  1. In what way is a diary useful as a historical source? Why?
  1. Do you think Pepys would have wanted others to read his diary? Why?
  1. What sort of significant national or world events might you include in a diary of your lifetime?
  1. What might your personal experiences, feelings and thoughts add to how these events are remembered?