‘Musique and women I cannot but give way to.’
– Samuel Pepys, The Diary
I – The Portrait
I was reading an online article the other day, debunking certain Pepys “quotes” that were circulating and talking about how Pepys approached life under plague conditions (in short: he stayed at work, unlike the King and Parliament, but did a lot of socialising), when I was interrupted by an e-mail from the National Portrait Gallery, inviting me to take myself round on a virtual tour.
I decided I’d see what they had by way of Pepyses, and having clicked on the first and very much most-famous option (John Hayls, oil on canvas, 1666), my eye was caught – for the first time, possibly – by the sheet of music in the bottom left-hand quadrant of the painting. This is the go-to (i.e. Wikipedia) image of Pepys, but it’s quite often cropped, which cuts in half or leaves out altogether the bit of what is obviously music. How many people looked at it, I wondered. And, what’s more, why’s it even there? This is a standard prop for court composers, say – but not for mid-ranked naval bureaucrats.
Well, the great thing about Pepys is if you want to know exactly what was going on in his world #OTD (or any given day, for almost a decade) three and a half centuries ago, you can just ask him. He is online, annotated and searchable – albeit in the sadly un-unexpurgated 1893 edition – at www.pepysdiary.com. The traffic there has rocketed, of late.
The Hayls portrait was started in March 1666 (Pepys, having been born modestly, was now starting to come up in the world and needed the paintings to match). It was one of a pair painted around the same time – the other (now lost) being of his wife, Elizabeth – and Pepys remarks on aspects of the lengthy process, including the outfit he hired (“an Indian gowne”), concerns about the “ayre of his face”, and complaints about “break[ing] his neck” to hold the right pose. By April 11th, he specifically notes that it was almost finished “but [for] the musique”. He also mentions not wanting the traditional landscape background, and the NPG’s notes say there is x-ray evidence of “extensive alterations” in the bottom left corner, to incorporate and clearly show the music “of his own recent composition”. And then, on this day 354 years ago, April 20th, a week or so after Easter: “though it do not please me thoroughly now it is done.”
The notes were indeed ‘painted true,’ avers an 1848 review piece in The Athenaeum. But the portrait, or the notes, may not have been the only things on Pepys’s mind.
II – The Music
The text between the voice and the continuo staves reads: “Beauty retire, thou &c.” Above, but very faintly (there’s a clearer engraving in the NPG archives, apparently): “Solyman to Roxana [sic]”. These two are characters from Sir William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes, which has a claim to being the first English opera and was originally performed, under a special Cromwellian exemption, in Sir William’s house on Aldersgate Street in 1656. This fragment is a setting of the same text – “Beauty retire, thou dost my pitty move” – and Pepys was one of many Restoration contemporaries who took an interest in how English verse could be arranged to suit the (injunction-dodging?) Italian recitative style, under the previous regime.
Pepys was a noted and notable musical enthusiast, had high-level composer friends like Pelham Humfrey, and was capable of accompanying himself on any of several instruments
Pepys was a noted and notable musical enthusiast, had high-level composer friends like Pelham Humfrey, and was capable of accompanying himself on any of several instruments. But, though Hayls’ painting was indeed once auctioned, in the mid C19th, with the mis-attribution ‘Portrait of a Musician’, Pepys was hardly a composer. Robert Louis Stevenson later somewhat broadly complimented his small handful of songs as “open and dignified in the sound, various and majestic in the sentiment”.
Pepys, though, was very proud of “Beauty retire” – of all his songs this is the one whose reception was most pleasing to him – and would, in any case, have seen his composition as a mark of gentlemanly roundedness and leisure at the time of his first sitting for a portrait. He talks immodestly about the 90-second ditty in the Diary for literally a year in 1665/6 (both years, but also the old/new calendar problem), sandwiched – and indeed often Sandwich’d – between running the Admiralty, being a Fellow of the Royal Society, and feeling up any and all women whom he could get his hands on.
Which brings us to the next part of the story.
III – Elizabeth Knepp
On December 6th 1665 (a day off) Pepys “spent the afternoon upon a song of Solyman’s words to Roxalana that I have set…”. He was playing/singing it to his good friend Mr Hill on January 9th, and on February 23rd – his birthday – we find him teaching it to one Mrs Knipp/Knepp (he used both spellings), a friend of his wife’s, actress in the King’s Company, and wife of Christopher Knepp, horse-dealer. She sang it “bravely”, he writes; and by August, Knepp is telling Pepys that “Beauty retire” is the talk of the town – “mightily cried up, which I am not a little proud of”. He credits her with having helped in its promotion, socially, and in November he and she duetted at a salon gathering, upon request.
Pepys’ informal musical company, as enumerated the first time he mentions Mrs Knepp, often congregated for a bit of a singalong at one or other of their houses, and also included a Mr Edward Coleman, composer and Gentleman of the Chapel Royal (in which capacity I have myself frequently acted), and his wife Catherine Coleman, the first professional English actress. Both of these had been involved in The Siege (Mrs Coleman singing and Mr C writing the instrumental parts), and they had both praised his song ‘mightily’ on January 3rd.
She was neither the first nor last of Pepys’ long-running dalliances
But it was Elizabeth Knepp who’d caught Pepys’s eye. The famously philandering diarist speaks very well of her, in several senses – “the pleasantest company in the world” – and she is mentioned at least a hundred times, sometimes daily, including feeling her up in the back of a coach on the way home one evening, and other instances of “be[ing] bold”. He jokingly calls her a “baggage” and a “jade”, and she in turn flirts with him by letter, and pulls his hair at the theatre. His persistent desire for Mrs Knepp lasts for almost the remainder of the diary – groping her while she was ill in bed, kissing her at the playhouse, etc. – over and long after the expressed objections of Elizabeth Pepys, who was routinely (and understandably) out of sorts when Knepp was around. Knepp subsequently asked Pepys if he would be god-father to her son… though he appears, then, not to have been invited to the christening. On at least one occasion, money changed hands.
After several years of this, Elizabeth Pepys extracted a vow from Pepys that he would no longer have any contact (as it were) with Mrs Knepp – and the final reference to Elizabeth Knepp relates Pepys’s wife’s angry suspicion that Pepys had been out partying with her and Mrs Pierce in Deptford. He was, in fact, with Mrs Bagwell.
Pepys, meanwhile, calls Mr Knepp “surly,” “ill-natured,” and a “jealous-looking fellow,” which well he might have been, not least if he had known Pepys was committing his misdemeanours to posterity by having it musically encoded in his portrait. Thank heavens neither Mr Knepp nor Mrs Pepys had keys to the unsubtle sexual esperanto of the Diary!
In all, Elizabeth Knepp’s beauty moved plenty more than just Pepys’ “pitty”. But she was neither the first nor last of Pepys’ long-running dalliances, and he does say that The Siege was “certainly… the best poem that ever was wrote” – so maybe it’s too much to think he’d have her purposely enshrined in this way, even at the high-point of frustrated lust for her (although the more I look at Hayls’ portrait, the more I think Pepys does look slightly busted. And – as any schoolboy worth his salt would note – that we can only see one of his hands). Perhaps he was just really proud of his hit song.
The whole tale of “Beauty retire” and the portrait it ended up in is neatly (if entirely incidentally) framed by the two great urban terrors of the age, the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666. It also seems a poignant closing of the circle that it was in conversation with one Mrs Knepp, in 1668, at “the King’s playhouse,” that Pepys “hear[d] Sir W. Davenant is just now dead.”
Through all that strife and turmoil, though, says Pepys, he was just “mightily pleased to find myself in condition to have these people come about me and to be able to entertain them, and have the pleasure of their qualities, than which no man can have more in the world.” I fear we’re all now starting to appreciate that sentiment.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe