Tuesday 4 May 2021

The Sultan, the Siege of Rhodes, the Secretary to the Navy Board and his lover

Samuel Pepys by John Hayls oil on canvas, 1666 NPG 211 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Samuel Pepys by John Hayls
oil on canvas, 1666 - NPG 211 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Music plays quite a striking role in Samuel Pepys' diary and the work has plenty of Pepys's tantalising comments about contemporary musicians. In this guest posting, Jacky Collis Harvey, author of Walking Pepys's London takes a more detailed look at one of Samuel Pepys's own compositions and its links to his mistress Elizabeth Knepp.

In 1666 the diarist Samuel Pepys and his wife Elizabeth sat to the fashionable artist John Hayls in his studio in Southampton St, Bloomsbury. Elizabeth chose to be depicted en déshabillé as a sexy martyred female saint, which says all one need to know, I think, about her feelings on the chronically parlous state of her marriage; while Pepys had himself depicted in an ‘Indian gown’ which he seems to have hired for the purpose, a loose silk robe (possibly a kimono) the colour of English Breakfast tea. At Hayls’s request he posed turned from right to left and looking back at us over his shoulder. As he complained to his Diary, ‘I…  do almost break my neck looking over my shoulder to make the posture for him to work by.’ All in all, the completion of the portraits to Pepys’s satisfaction (which, this being Pepys, included a good deal of him telling the artist how to do his job) took from February to May of that year. When they were done, Pepys paid Hayls £22 and 10 shillings for the pair, bore them proudly home in his carriage, and hung them that very day in his house behind the Navy Office in Seething Lane. We may assume they were hung with Elizabeth on the left, and Samuel, looking back at us over his shoulder to the right, with the piece of music that had apparently been absorbing his attention before we walked in on him there in his left hand. The piece is Pepys’s own setting for ‘Beauty Retire’, from William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes – Part II, Act 4.

Elizabeth Pepys by James Thomson (Thompson), after John Hayls stipple engraving, published January 1828 - NPG D5507 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth Pepys by James Thomson , after John Hayls
stipple engraving, published January 1828 - NPG D5507
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Music was one of the great passions of Pepys’s life. ‘The thing of the world that I do love most,’ he called it, in July of that same year - in an argument with Elizabeth, in fact, which must have pleased her, not. This song from The Siege of Rhodes was certainly not his only composition, but it might have been one of his first, and its presence in his portrait in this, his 33rd year, with his personal fortune steadily increasing and his reputation likewise, attests to his pride in it; and the compliments he received upon it from his friends and fellow music-lovers are recorded in the Diary with unfeigned pleasure. Even better, from our point of view, we have the whole of Pepys’s setting for the song, preserved in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. You can find it today on Spotify. How that would have amazed him!

The song is not a major piece, by any means. A little under a minute long, it records Solyman’s (Suleiman the Magnificent’s) thoughts after a disagreement with his wife Roxolana. ‘I break the hearts/of half the world, and she breaks mine,’ he muses, sadly.  It’s much more recitative than song, but then so is most of The Siege of Rhodes – plays being banned under the Protectorate, setting the entire drama to music, which it seems it took the efforts of five different composers to do [the vocal music by Henry Lawes, Matthew Locke, and Captain Henry Cooke, and the instrumental music by Charles Coleman and George Hudson], was the only way to get its performance past the authorities when it was first staged at Davenant’s home in 1656. The ‘first English opera’, as it has been called, is a wreath that has dropped onto The Siege’s head entirely by accident. Part II followed the year after; Pepys was at a performance of it in July 1661, at the Duke of York’s playhouse in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

There is a deal of musical mopping and mowing in Pepys’s setting of the Sultan’s words, strong emphases, swoops and falls, a man shaking his head over his romantic fate: ‘At first I thought her by our prophet sent… and now, she is become my punishment,’ Solyman tells us, reminding us that Samuel and Elizabeth were also a love-match. And we know music and love were twined one about the other in Pepys’s psyche, another reason why The Siege of Rhodes so spoke to him (along, perhaps, with an appealing identification with the hard-pressed Sultan). Pepys was a man for whom music was limbic. For example, his only means of describing the effect a melody from Decker and Massinger’s The Virgin Martyr had on him was to compare it to the intoxication of his feelings for Elizabeth: ‘it ravished me,’ he famously declared, it ‘...did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife.’ Music for Samuel was indeed the food of love. Yet for all his passion for Elizabeth, which waxed and waned but never died, and despite her dutiful attendance at singing and music lessons, carrying a tune did not come easily to her - certainly not as easily it did to one of her main rivals for her husband’s affections at this point, the actress Elizabeth Knepp.

A view of Rhodes, designed by Inigo Jones' pupil John Webb, to be painted on a backshutter for the first performance of Davenant's opera The Siege of Rhodes "in recitative music" in May 1656, at Rutland House
A view of Rhodes, designed by Inigo Jones' pupil John Webb, to be painted on a backshutter
for the first performance of Davenant's The Siege of Rhodes in May 1656, at Rutland House

It is a great shame we don’t have a portrait of Mrs Knepp. Pepys’s earliest mention of her in December 1665 characterises her as ‘pretty enough’, but also as ‘the most excellent, mad-humoured thing, and sings the noblest that ever I heard in my life.’ Curiously enough, the first mention of Knepp, on 6 December 1665, is on the same day as first mention of ‘a song of Solyman’s words to Roxalana,’ upon which Pepys had spent his afternoon. On his 33rd birthday, 23rd February 1666, he and Knepp (‘this baggage’ he calls her, fondly) make an evening of it, with him teaching her his song ‘which she makes go most rarely’. Even better, by November of that year, Knepp has become an advocate for it, perhaps even performing it herself, which leads me to suspect that voice of hers was a contralto. But what of Elizabeth? Is she to be found in the song as Samuel’s Roxolana? Did he see Knepp and the many other women in his life as a sort of harem, and fantasise (and indeed rationalise) himself in that exotic gown of Indian silk, as their sultan? Impossible to know – but then no one person hears the same thing in a piece of music as another, any more than two people view the same portrait, take the same walk, even together, or, for that matter, are partners in the same marriage. It’s why we keep listening still.

Jacky Colliss Harvey’s Walking Pepys’s London is published by Haus Publishing Ltd.


  • Samuel Pepys's Diary is available on-line and is searchable with a valuable Encyclopedia, https://www.pepysdiary.com/ 
  • For Pepys's comments on contemporary musicians, try this one about a new work by the Master of the King's Music, Louis Grabu [Grebus]: 'to White Hall, and there in the Boarded-gallery did hear the musick with which the King is presented this night by Monsieur Grebus, the master of his musick; both instrumentall — I think twenty-four violins — and vocall; an English song upon Peace. But, God forgive me! I never was so little pleased with a concert of musick in my life. The manner of setting of words and repeating them out of order, and that with a number of voices, makes me sick, the whole design of vocall musick being lost by it.', Tuesday 1 October 1667, Samuel Pepys's Diary
  • John Hayls' portrait of Elizabeth Pepys does not seem to surivive, it was apparently destroyed during the 19th century and is known only from engravings
  • Part 1 of The Siege of Rhodes was first performed in a small private theatre constructed at William Davenant's home, Rutland House, in 1656. Special permission had to be obtained from the Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell, as dramatic performances were outlawed and all public theatres closed. Davenant managed to obtain this by calling the production "recitative music", music being still permissible within the law. When published in 1656, it was under the equivocating title The siege of Rhodes made a representation by the art of prospective in scenes, and the story sung in recitative musick, at the back part of Rutland-House in the upper end of Aldersgate-Street, London. The 1659 reprinting of the text gives the location at the Cock-pit in Drury Lane, a well-known theatre frequented by Samuel Pepys after the Restoration. Pepys himself later read the text and commented in his Diary that it was "certainly (the more I read it the more I think so) the best poem that ever was wrote."

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