John Evelyn: Living for Ingenuity

Posted on January 25th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Gillian Darley, John Evelyn: Living for Ingenuity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), xiv + 383 pp., illus. in black-and-white, £25.00 (hbk), ISBN 0-300-11227-0

John Evelyn was a giant of his era, and his era was a most momentous one. Gillian Darley has an extensive stage and a cast of thousands to work with in this new biography, which takes its place as a wide-ranging introduction to his life and work. Evelyn’s eighty-five years spanned the reigns of five monarchs, as well as the Civil War and the Interregnum. He went abroad in the 1640s to avoid the trouble, spending time in the Low Countries, France, and Italy and returning for a longer stay in Paris in the early 1650s, all the time observing and storing up memories for later use. For instance, he visited the Château of Maisons twice and wrote of its riverside garden, where the banks were cut ‘like a Harbour or Bay into a part of the Garden’. He suggested (unsuccessfully) introducing this idea at Greenwich and Chelsea, both with riverside gardens.

Back in England in 1652, he set about developing his own garden at Sayes Court, Deptford in Kent. We hear in parallel of the new planning of the garden at Wotton in Surrey, Evelyn’s birthplace and the family home, which was inherited by his elder brother, George. While George and another George, a cousin, made plans, Evelyn took an advisory role. He discussed plants and garden design extensively with friends and contacts, but rarely did more than visit and advise. One of the exceptions, and his surviving masterpiece, was Albury Park, Surrey, designed for his friend, George Howard, and inspired in particular by the huge terraces of Palestrina (ancient Praeneste) outside Rome. Darley comments that the chronology of Albury is difficult to unravel, but suggests that Evelyn’s detailed plan, which she dates to 1673, is perhaps an idealized version of his intentions. More information would be welcome for this important commission.

Evelyn’s interests were so wide, and he knew and corresponded with so many people, that it is difficult to keep up with him. Not surprising, then, that some of his projects remained unfinished. This is the case with his famous treatise on gardens, Elysium Britannicum. He worked on it extensively during the Commonwealth years, and intended to publish it to mark the Restoration, but somehow he never did. However, he achieved twenty published works on subjects as varied as London’s polluted air, architecture and printmaking. Gardening dominates and the titles include two translations from the French, as well as his own writings.

Darley’s book has a freshness which derives in part from the author’s own enthusiasm but, also, from newly revealed information in the Evelyn archive, deposited at the British Library in 1995 and now online and catalogued. The very amount of material there — 227 volumes of Evelyn’s own papers — means that the author has had to be very selective, and we are sometimes only given tantalising glimpses, but his family, friends and contacts emerge much more clearly than before. The achievement of this account then, written with deep knowledge and great skill, lies in setting the man, with all his interests, in the context of his uncertain and fascinating times.

Sally Jeffery

35:1 (Summer 2007)

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