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A Friend, a Booke, and a Garden

Evelyn, in the 1650s, had acquired a reputation, perhaps not deserved, for having made a great study of all the trades, and for needing only three more trades to make it complete. But a manuscript volume of his which still survives has only 44 pages of text out of 605. It represents another of his unfinished projects, and one reason that it could not be finished was that in order to give a full account of a trade a man would have to penetrate its “mysteries,” its secrets. Amazingly enough, Evelyn, who was a royalist, was able during the Cromwellian period to learn enough of the secrets of shipbuilding to be able to explain in detail how, in Michael Hunter’s words, to “lay out the lines for a naval vessel, including instructions and calculations concerning the proportions of the hull and the correct lengths for the different masts.” In a particularly interesting essay in the symposium on Evelyn held at Dumbarton Oaks in 1993, Hunter tells us that this kind of information was later withheld from the Royal Society.

Not surprisingly, one may think. But the divulging of trade secrets was unwelcome at a more commonplace level. A man might be given a trade secret, take off with it, and patent it. Or again, a man might be given a secret, and at once resent its being divulged to anyone else, as in the case of a recipe for gilding frames. A letter to Evelyn survives requesting

that you would bee pleased not to make the receit of the gold vernish common, for hee [a Mr. Paston] having received it of mee and made experiment of it, did very much esteeme and affect it; and was passionately troubled when the plaister of Paris man at Charing crosse told him you had promised to teach it him.

Evelyn’s problem, in completing his Baconian project of a study of all the trades, was evidently twofold. It involved him, an educated gentleman of independent means, in endless negotiations with the plaster of Paris man at Charing Cross—wheedling his secrets out of him, passing others on to him, coping with his ruffled feathers when information that was pursued for the sake of pure science turned out to be of vital commercial value. In fact much of what Evelyn did manage to publish in his lifetime, including Sylva, which is about growing trees, Sculptura, about the art of engraving, and Pomona, on the art of cider-making, had direct commercial application. One can say the same of the new science itself.

Evelyn had a dream of a new kind of scientific institution, which he outlined to Boyle in a well-known letter of September 3, 1659. It was to be something like a religious order of men who would “resign themselves to live profitably and sweetly together,” studying and conducting laboratory experiments, and cultivating their own garden plots. The letter sets out in great detail how much land would be needed, and what sort of buildings; what sort of food would be laid on, what religious services, and so forth. It could not be a celibate institution (as the Oxford and Cambridge colleges were) because Evelyn was a married man, but he and his wife would live “decently asunder” in separate apartments. What he did envisage, however, was seclusion from the world: strangers could only visit on certain days of the week, and then only at dinner time.

The idyllic notion that one might devote oneself to solitude among friends, to study and to horticulture—familiar enough as a classical theme, played with all its variants—this was not a conception entertained purely for motives of self-pleasing. Rather it came with thoughts of consolation. Evelyn’s royalism had lost him the opportunity to achieve something in public life, and it was as a disappointed man that he announced his return to England from the Continent in 1651:

I shall therefore bring over with me no ambitions at all to be a statesman, or meddle with the unlucky Interests of Kingdomes, but shall contentedly submitt to the loss of my education, by which I might one day have hoped to have bin considerable in my Country. A Friend, a Booke, and a Garden shall for the future perfectly circumscribe my utmost designes.

One might say such things, one might say them eloquently, in the full knowledge that, given a small shift in circumstances, there was an opposite case to be made: a case for the proper involvement in public life. Just as Milton could put both sides of an argument in “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” so Evelyn, by 1666, could find himself penning a pamphlet called Publick Employment and an Active Life Prefer’d to Solitude, an answer to one by a Scottish advocate, George Mackenzie, entitled A Moral Essay Preferring Solitude to Publick Employment. It really did not matter on which side of this old debate one spoke: indeed it might be best to be able to speak on both sides.

Professor Hunter detects in Evelyn an ambivalence about the value of his virtuoso pursuits, quoting a remark in a letter from Aubrey to the antiquarian Anthony à Wood: “he sayes you call him a great Virtuoso: he had rather you called him a Coxcomb.” And one could well imagine that there was an abiding regret that the Cromwell years had lost him a career, and indeed, as the passage above somewhat puzzlingly implies, an education. We look at it differently, because we see in his years of chosen exile the foundation of an education he might never have had, had he been detained in London by the court. And we see in his garden book, Elysium Britannicum, as throughout his writings, a man putting the knowledge gained through travel to good advantage. But this exile might not have felt either so voluntary or such an advantage. It is not a matter of what precisely happened, so much as what he felt about what happened.


There is solace in a garden, the purist solace known to humankind. It is, Evelyn writes,

a place of all terrestriall enjoyments the most resembling Heaven, and the best representation of our lost felicitie. It is the common Terme and the pit from whenc we were dug; We all came out of this parsly bed.

But three principles are requisite for the making of a garden:

First, a good purse; Secondly, a judicious Eye; and thirdly, a skillfull hand. The first we will name Hortulanus Sumptuarius, understanding the person at whose charge and for whose divertissement the Garden is made. The Second, Hortulanus Ingeniarius; who, though he may be fitly styled the Surveyer (as from whose dictates and directions the Garden is contrived) yet is he in truth, properly, The Gardiner, by way of excellency, as in whome all the fore mentioned accomplishments concurr and center. The third and last, is, Hortulanus Manuarius, a compellation more suitable to the immediate Labourers….

Of the three, Evelyn was certainly the first, being the heir to part of a gunpowder fortune; and he was certainly the second, the Surveyer or what we would term garden designer. In 1643, seeing the “furious and zealous people demolish that stately Cross in Cheapside,” he retired to his brother’s house, the family home in Wotton. A few weeks before, he had seen a portent: “viz. A shining cloud in the air, in shape resembling a sword, the point reaching to the north; it was as bright as the moon, the rest of the sky being very serene.” Now that war had begun, the young man turned his attention to the garden:

Resolving to possess myself in some quiet, if it might be, in a time of so great jealousy, I built by my brother’s permission a study, made a fish-pond, an island, and some other solitudes and retirements at Wotton; which gave the first occasion of improving them to those waterworks and gardens which afterwards succeeded them, and became at that time the most famous of England.

But these solitudes and retirements cannot have amounted to very much, for within a few weeks he had sent a black horse as a gift to the King, and was off on his travels. As to the third kind of gardener, Hortulanus Manuarius, one must suppose that Evelyn had men to do the heavy labor, but that does not rule out all labor in principle. As we have seen, it would feature prominently in the routine of his ideal community.

What kind of garden would Evelyn have wanted or designed? It would certainly have been formal, but to the eye of a contemporary it would have been not so formal as to seem affected. “Art, though it contend with Nature; yet might by no meanes justle it out….” When we read such language on its own, we are at a loss to know precisely what it implies, and if one were to place such a sentence beside a contemporary painting, drawing, or map of a garden, the plan might shock with its formality. But the term “Nature” clearly had its special force and meaning, for the passage continues after a few lines:

At no hand therefore let our Workman enforce his plot to any particular Phantsy, but, contrive rather how to apply to it the best shape that will agree with the nature of the Place; and studdy how even the most imperfect figure, may, by the Mysterie of Arte and fantsy, receive the most gracefull ornaments, and fittest for a Garden….

The same thought, expressed in very similar words, will recur throughout the eighteenth century, but will come to imply very different sorts of garden and park. Pope’s injunction to “Consult the Genius of the Place in all” is clearly anticipated here by Evelyn, but the words cannot help implying, for us today, a greater informality than they would have for Evelyn, who, in the gardens he worked on, was laying out straight paths and cutting straight avenues through the woods. The language used by the poetry of nature and gardens—words like grove, fountain, and lawn—is highly misleading. When Milton speaks of lawns he means meadows. Even when we know this, it is hard to think of the meadows he is talking about without somehow, mentally, turning them into lawns. Fountains, when they are discovered in the wild, are of course really springs, but I have seldom seen a spring that I could imagine being called a fountain.

There is much poetry in Elysium Britannicum, most of it Latin. And there is much to recommend, in John Ingram’s edition, to the student of the literature of the period, since Ingram’s transcription, which preserves each cancellation and insertion in a comprehensible way, gives a strong sense of a writer at work, struggling with a grand project. Evelyn’s taste in prose, when given its head, was for grand Latin effects of vocabulary (producing words like “caducity,” “sphacelism,” “carbunculation,” “exustion,” and “imbibition” in the space of a few pages), but less so for grand Latin effects of syntax.

The Evelyn we like best, however, is writing in a more natural register, the language in which he gets on with the job of providing technical information concerning the wide range of subjects which turn out to be of relevance to the making of a garden: acoustics, for instance, and hydraulics, along with the other budding sciences of the day. For “without some tincture in Medicine, Gardening is a voluptuous and empty Speculation,” says Evelyn. And: “In a word, What is our Gardiner to be, but an absolute Philosopher!”

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