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At Samuel Pepys’ Library

September 1, 2015
by the gentle author

I paid a visit to Pepys’ Library in Cambridge recently as research for my Cries of London book

You cross the bridge over the River Cam in Cambridge – the one from which the city takes it name – and there is Magdalene College, with a magnificent border of dahlias at this time of year but otherwise not significantly different from when Pepys was an undergraduate there.

Samuel Pepys bequeathed his library of more than three thousand books to his college, where they were installed upon the death of his nephew and heir in 1724 and where they are preserved today. Pepys had them all bound, catalogued according to his own system and stored in order of size in twelve cases manufactured to his design in the workshops at Chatham dockyard. This library can be seen as a natural complement to Pepys’ personal writing – gathering together essential cultural texts and images of the physical world, just as his journal recorded salient detail of his experience of daily life.

Although one volume of Pepys’ diary is open on display in a glass case, revealing the meticulous shorthand he used to write his journal, the rest are not conspicuous within the library. I felt foolish, once I had searched the shelves for the other volumes in vain, so I had no choice but to ask the librarian where they were since I could not visit Pepys’ Library without casting my eyes upon the most famous diaries of all time.

Magnanimously, the librarian led me to one of the cases and directed me to look at the second run of books, set behind those at the front of the shelf. There, at the back, were five modest volumes labelled simply ‘Journal’ and each numbered with a Roman numeral on the spine. It was breathtaking that these works were placed there with such discretion and bound modestly. In setting up his legacy and including the diaries, Pepys must have known that it was only a matter of time before someone read them. Yet it was only in the early nineteenth century that these journals were transcribed, using his shorthand manual in the collection, and the phenomenon of ‘Pepys Diary’ as we know it came into existence.

The earliest collection of Cries of London I have found is that belonging to Samuel Pepys and they are also kept in his library. Driven by his acquisitive nature and infinite curiosity about life, Pepys amassed more than ten thousand engravings and eighteen hundred printed ballads, including several sets of Cries. Alongside those published in his own day, Pepys included those of a generation before, which are among the earliest surviving examples – a significant juxtaposition suggesting he recognised the value of these prints as documents of social history.

In two large albums entitled ‘London & Westminster,’ Pepys arranged his architectural and historical prints of these locations, including a section labelled ‘Cryes consisting of Several Setts thereof, Antient & Moderne: with the differ Stiles us’d therein by the Cryers.’ In these folios, three series of Cries were pasted on successive pages, placing them there as an integral element of the identity of the city as much as the lofty monuments of brick and stone.

Ordered in chronological sequence of their publication, these three series illustrate the evolution of the form of the Cries during the seventeenth century, from a single sheet to a chapbook to a set of individual prints. The earliest set in Pepys’ collection, believed to date from the beginning of the seventeenth century, is described thus ‘A very antient Sett thereof, in Wood, with the Words then used by the Cryers.’

Twenty-four alternating male and female Criers inhabit niches in four storeys of arcades, displaying wares to indicate their identity like medieval saints parading upon an altarpiece. Suggesting a procession through time, they are introduced by the Cryer at daybreak and interrupted by the Bellman and the Watchman, just as the Criers each had their own place within the rhythm of the passing hours.

This is followed on the next page with a set of thirty-two engravings, believed to date from around 1640, described by Pepys as “A later Sett, in Wood – with the Words also then in use.” By comparison with the woodcuts representing stereotypical figures of Criers, these have more self-possession – though close examination reveals that the same models recur, posing in a variety of guises as different street vendors. Yet in spite of these enacted tableaux, there exists a convincing presence of personalities among these Criers – glancing around in circumspection or meeting our gaze with phlegmatic stoicism.

These two anonymous sets from the early and mid-seventeenth century pasted across double spreads are followed by pages of individual prints by Marcellus Laroon. On a more ambitious scale than had been attempted before, they permitted sophisticated use of composition and greater detail in costume by granting each subject their own sheet, thereby elevating the status of the prints as worthy of separate frames.

Laroon was employed as a costume painter in the studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller, who painted Samuel Pepys’ portrait in 1689 which perhaps has drapery by Laroon. Certainly, Pepys acquired drawings by Laroon of the Lord Mayor’s Show and other subjects which were collected into his albums alongside the engravings of Laroon’s Cries from 1687, that were ‘moderne’ for Pepys to the degree that he could caption eighteen of them with the names of the subjects.

Thus, turning the large folio pages of  ‘London & Westminster’ invites comparison – and allowed Samuel Pepys to contrast those ‘antient’ prints from his parents’ generation with those of his youth and adulthood, contemplating the hawkers that populated the streets of the city before he was born, distinguishing the differences in their clothing and wares, and wondering at how London had changed in his time.

Pepys’ Library, Magdalen College, Cambridge

‘A very antient Sett thereof, in Wood, with the Words then used by the Cryers’

“A later Sett, in Wood – with the Words also then in use”

Drawn by Marcellus Laroon and published by Pierce Tempest, 1687

Accompanying my book of Cries of London published on 12th November, Bishopsgate Institute is staging a festival around the culture and politics of markets and street trading, and Spitalfields Music is opening its Winter Festival with a concert of Cries of London by Fretwork on 4th December at Shoreditch Church.

I still need a couple more investors for the book and you can learn more here

Who Can Help Me Publish An Illustrated History Of The Cries Of London ?

5 Responses leave one →
  1. September 1, 2015

    So glad you had a successful visit to this wonderful library!

  2. Debra Matheney permalink
    September 1, 2015

    So jealous. The library was closed on my visit to Cambridge, but we did see the chapel, a tiny gem, and the gardens were a bloom with daffodils. We should be eternally grateful to the code breaker of Pepy’s shorthand as the diaries give us such and interesting view of 17th century London life.

  3. Jan permalink
    September 1, 2015

    what is interesting about the ‘very antient sett’ is that as well as the figures set in gothic-style niches, they are alternate m/f in pairs AND drawn in the conventional attitudes of formal portraiture, where men turn to right and women to left. So whoever drew/cut the blocks had a sophisticated knowledge of art and architure.

  4. September 1, 2015

    What a great place to visit, good luck with the book, Valerie

  5. September 1, 2015

    Love the way this shows changes in vowel usage: from unions to onions Glad the u and o have not been transposed, however. Otherwise, I would have to describe myself as trade onionist.

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