John Evelyn


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Particular Friends : The Correspondence of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn

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John Evelyn 1629 - 1706

Great contemporary of Samuel Pepys - lived in Deptford.  Today there is a pub named after him.

Born in 1620 into a substantial Surrey landowning family whose fortunes were founded in gunpowder manufacture, John Evelyn came of age just as the Civil War began `in a conjunction of the greatest and most prodigious hazards that ever the youth of England saw'. To escape the disturbances, he embarked on a prolonged and formative period of travel in Italy and France, finally coming to rest in Paris in 1647 where he married the daughter of the English Resident, Sir Richard Browne, whose house was a centre for the exiled royalist community.

This period abroad stimulated Evelyn's wide-ranging intellectual interests. He embarked on an intensive programme of study, of which the evidence remains in his elaborate series of commonplace books, and began to build up his impressive private library: as he afterwards wrote, he always looked on a library `with the reverence of a temple'. By the time he returned to England in 1652 to take up residence at a house belonging to his wife's family, Sayes Court at Deptford, he had made himself prodigiously learned, not only in classical literature but also in scientific and technical matters. He soon established himself as one of the foremost virtuosi of his day. His famous garden at Sayes Court, begun at this time, gave scope for his talent for design, his enthusiasm for French and Italian ideas, his practical skills and his strong moral and religious impulses: his conviction that `the air and genius of gardens operate upon human spirits towards virtue and sanctity'

The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 brought Evelyn a long wished-for opportunity to engage in public affairs. He became a founder member of the Royal Society. The King sought his company and commissioned him to write. But Evelyn never found `the fruitless, vicious and empty conversations' of the Restoration Court congenial. With his sense of duty, practical knowledge and sheer capacity for hard work, he was at his best on public commissions. Evelyn won himself great credit by his indefatigable labours among the prisoners of war and sick and wounded seamen during the Second Dutch War while the country was stricken with the plague; in 1671 he was appointed to the Council for Trade and Foreign Plantations and under James II made a Commissioner for the Privy Seal.

Evelyn was also a notable lay representative of the restored Church of England, a role closely associated with the most controversial episode of his life: his pact of religious fellowship with Margaret Blagge, a pious maid of honour at the Restoration Court, who in 1675 married the future prime minister, Sidney Godolphin, only to die in childbirth three years later. It has been suggested that Evelyn tried to discourage her from the marriage in order to keep her under his influence. Certainly, there is evidence   that his feelings for her went beyond the platonic friendship he professed. The suggestion is that, like his friend Samuel Pepys and despite his far more respectable historical persona, Evelyn had his secrets.

`In fine', Pepys wrote of this many-faceted man, `a most excellent person he is, and must be allowed a little for conceitedness; but he may well be so, being a man so much above others'.

Evelyn the Gardener

Evelyn is probably the best known and widely quoted gardening writer of the 17th Century. The diarist Pepys called him a "very fine gentleman." There is no doubt but that he was well acquainted with and greatly respected by many members of the English aristocracy including nobles and others closely related to the ruling class in England.

Evelyn travelled extensively in France, Italy, and Flanders. He translated from the French De La Quintinyers magnificent work, which was the most beautiful book about English Gardening in any language. This translation became the standard English authority on the subject and was called The Compleat Gardner (1693).

Evelyn's book Acetaria, A Discourse of Sallets (1699) was a famous gardening book. He also wrote Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees, which was a practical work. He had planned to write a book entitled The Plan of a Royal Garden but it was never completed. Acetaria (1699) was to be one of the chapters.

Remnants of his garden design recommendations are still to be found in England.

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