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A Friend, a Booke, and a Garden

John Evelyn’s “Elysium Britannicum” and European Gardening

edited by Therese O’Malley and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn
Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 310 pp., $45.00

1.

Three of the liveliest and most popular of seventeenth-century prose writers are known to us not through the work they brought out in their lifetime but through manuscripts first published in the nineteenth century. John Aubrey, the antiquarian (1626–1697), never printed his Brief Lives. They appeared in bowdlerized editions in 1810 and 1898. Debowdlerized, they were turned into a long-running stage show in the 1960s.

The diary of Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) was not deciphered until 1825, and the first full standard edition really came much later (1893–1899). Macaulay fell at once upon this work, and a remark to one of his sisters in 1831 makes it clear how it was appropriated by his imagination, his “fancy.” Through the diary, says Macaulay,

I seem to know every inch of Whitehall. I go in at Hans Holbein’s gate, and come out through the matted gallery. The conversations which I compose between great people of the time are long, and sufficiently animated: in the style, if not with the merits, of Sir Walter Scott’s. The old parts of London, which you are sometimes surprised at my knowing so well, those old gates and houses down by the river, have all played their part in my stories.

And yet Pepys himself does not appear as a key figure in Macaulay’s History. He is acknowledged as a source, but not made explicit as a presence. Pepys’s true fame as a character begins in the twentieth century.

And then there is John Evelyn (1620–1706), who published many books in his lifetime but whose Diary was first printed in 1818, with a preface acknowledging that, while much of its contents “may appear too unimportant to meet the public eye,” some particulars “may gratify the curiosity of those who are inquisitive after the mode in which their ancestors conducted business”:

Thus, when mention is made of great men going after dinner to attend a Council of State, or the business of their particular Offices, or the Bowling-Green, or even the Church; of an Hour’s Sermon being of a moderate length; of ladies painting their faces being a novelty; or of their receiving visits of Gentlemen whilst dressing, after having just risen out of bed; of the female attendant of a lady of fashion travelling on a pillion behind one of the footmen, and the footmen riding with swords;—such things, in the view above-mentioned, may not be altogether incurious.

One opens the diary at random to find that, in Rome on January 7, 1645,

A sermon was preached to the Jews, at the Ponte Sisto, who are constrained to sit till the hour is done; but it is with so much malice in their countenances, spitting, humming, coughing, and motion, that it is almost impossible they should hear a word from the preacher. A conversion is very rare.

A week later, Evelyn goes to the Ghetto with a Jewish acquaintance to witness a circumcision. A couple of pages on, he is admiring the Last Judgment painted by M. Angelo Buonarotti.

One opens the volume again, this time in the year 1657, September 15. Evelyn is in London. He describes a Turkish rope-dancer’s act, then the hairy woman Barbara Vanbeck:

Her very eye-brows were combed upwards, and all her forehead as thick and even as grows on any woman’s head, neatly dressed; a very long lock of hair out of each ear; she had also a most prolix beard, and mustachios, with long locks growing on the middle of her nose, like an Iceland dog exactly, the colour of a bright brown, fine as well-dressed flax. She was now married, and told me she had one child that was not hairy, nor were any of her parents, or relations. She was very well shaped, and played well on the harpsichord.

On the next page he examines John Tradescant’s museum, and sees two (live) Virginian rattlesnakes. On the page after, he and the congregation are taken prisoner at Holy Communion, charged with observing Christmas Day—“the superstitious time of the Nativity.”

Clearly there is no shortage of material in this diary. The Jews coughing through their compulsory sermon, the hairy woman playing the harpsichord, the Puritan soldiers holding their muskets against the congregation as they finish the Sacrament, the first pelican in St. James’s Park (“a melancholy water-fowl, brought from Astracan by the Russian Ambassador; it was diverting to see how he would toss up and turn a flat fish, plaice, or flounder, to get it right into his gullet at its lower beak which, being filmy, stretches to a prodigious wideness, when it devours a great fish”): I don’t see how one could expect more from a few pages turned at random.

But Evelyn has never quite commanded the same affection as Pepys or Aubrey, and a part of the reason for this is that what is invariably called his diary is rewritten—by himself, to be sure—and perhaps purged of any personal indiscretions. With Pepys we value the intimacy of his self-portrait. Opening a volume again at random we find:

A great part of the afternoon at nine-pins with my Lord and Mr. Hetly. I lost about 4s.

Supped with my Lord, and after that to bed.

This night I had a strange dream of bepissing myself, which I really did; and having kicked the clothes off, I got cold and found myself all muck-wet in the morning and had a great deal of pain in making water, which made me very melancholy.

One loses four shillings at ninepins, then one wets the bed: a plausible occasion for melancholy. But it is useless to expect this sort of thing from Evelyn, of whose diary Virginia Woolf wrote in 1920 that “he never used its pages to reveal the secrets of his heart, and all that he wrote might have been read aloud in the evening with a calm conscience to his children.”

Now this writing of a journal or diary in order to leave one’s family a record of some sort—particularly if one has done interesting things (as Evelyn undoubtedly had)—this is not only a natural and a valuable activity, it is a fundamental category of narrative. But Woolf goes on, rather shockingly:

If we wonder, then, why we still trouble to read what we must consider the uninspired work of a good man we have to confess, first that diaries are always diaries, books, that is, that we read in convalescence, on horseback, in the grip of death; second, that this reading, about which so many fine things have been said, is for the most part mere dreaming and idling; lying in a chair with a book; watching the butterflies on the dahlias; a profitless occupation which no critic has taken the trouble to investigate, and on whose behalf only the moralist can find a good word to say. For he will allow it to be an innocent employment; and happiness, he will add, though derived from trivial sources, has probably done more to prevent human beings from changing their religions and killing their kings than either philosophy or the pulpit.

One must not be so solemn as to be provoked by this tone of voice, nor, it would seem, so unsophisticated as to protest that it does scant justice to Evelyn. For the writing is uninspired, and the reading of it—on horseback!—a desultory activity that serves, at best, to keep us out of harm’s way.

But there is more to John Evelyn than this belletristic put-down would lead us to expect. There is more, first of all, to Evelyn’s subject—the virtuoso in the seventeenth century, the founding of the Royal Society, the theory and practice of gardening—and there is more to Evelyn as a person through whom these illuminating subjects can be approached. In the work under review, Evelyn’s hitherto unpublished Elysium Britannicum, we have the remains of an unfinished work (or all that has hitherto been found, for the editor holds out hope that other parts of the manuscript may still exist).

It is the missing masterpiece of the literature of gardening. Had its author managed intellectually to contain it, it would have been the successor to John Parkinson’s A Garden of Pleasant Flowers (1629) and the predecessor to Philip Miller’s The Gardeners Dictionary (1731). But the encyclopedism of the project proved too much for its author, and the great manuscript with its carefully enumerated additions and insertions remained unprinted, and much of it very probably suffered theproverbial fate of such material. It most likely ended up as liners for pie dishes, as curling papers and wrappers for spices.

2.

When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, his friend and adviser John Evelyn suggested to him in a Panegyrick that he might found a body “that may improve practical and Experimental knowledge.” It is likely that Evelyn was responsible for securing Charles’s patronage for what became the Royal Society, of which he was one of twelve founding members, along with Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle (to be joined soon after by John Aubrey). The purpose of the society was to scrutinize the whole of nature, to investigate it by means of observations and experiments in order to hammer out, in the course of time, a more solid philosophy, that is to say, to lay the foundations of a new science, along the lines earlier proposed by Francis Bacon.

The experiments to be conducted on nature were, in the Baconian scheme, experimenta lucifera: experiments to bear light, that is to say experiments not made for profit but designed to discover causes and axioms, to give the stuff and material on which the inductive sciences were to be based. Bacon divided nature into three states: nature as it was in due course, nature as it erred and varied (that is to say natural prodigies such as the hairy woman), and nature “altered or wrought.” In the last division we find nature as molded by the hands of man, nature forced by art to do that which, without art, would not be done, nature forced and nature bonded. A study of the mechanical arts was proposed, however, not primarily because of its utility and the prospect it offered for profit (although that was to come into it later), but because nature was expected to reveal itself more readily under the vexations of art than in its freedom.^*

What might seem to modern eyes a pursuit quite distinct from that of science, the study of the history of the mechanical trades, is to a Baconian mind such as Evelyn’s nothing less than a part of the study of science, or “philosophy,” itself. The early scientists were after all very closely involved with technology, because they were busily inventing or refining the instruments with which they worked, just as an architect of the period might expect to design a crane. The task the Royal Society proposed for itself was enormous; it included the listing of all natural phenomena as well as all ways of modifying nature. That was why a society, with agreed procedures and programs and committees, was needed. The task was all-encompassing.

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.

3.

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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