Two Sundays back, I took the rare opportunity to visit the wonderful garden that John Evelyn created at Albury Park in Surrey. Normally closed to the public, thankfully it opens twice a year under the National Gardens Scheme. The contrast in setting between Sayes Court and Albury Park could hardly be greater. At Albury Park, the garden is set into a south-facing hillside overlooking a richly-wooded valley through which the river Tillingbourne flows. It is sheltered, with a perfect aspect for fruit trees, and a good natural supply of water. After the pollution and clamour of Deptford it was such a delight to breathe in the sweet, clean air at Albury, and I’m sure Evelyn must have appreciated it, too.
Even before he began to redesign the garden, he was well-acquainted with Albury Park, which lies only about five miles from his family home at Wotton. Evelyn’s early mentor in matters of artistic taste, Lord Arundel, had laid out an Italianate garden at Albury in the 1630’s, and to judge by this engraving of it in 1645 by Wenceslaus Hollar, it already included long terraces with vines growing on them, some kind of classical-looking ruin, and a broad expanse of water – all features interestingly similar to those Evelyn later claimed as his own designs. After the earl’s death in 1652, unsure where to settle, Evelyn actually tried to buy Albury Park. But the heir, Henry Howard, decided to keep it, and in 1656 Howard, with Evelyn’s guidance, began making big changes to the garden.
The plan on the left, redrawn by Charles Walmsley from a map of 1701, shows how the garden looked some thirty years after Evelyn’s work was completed there. The River has been channelled into a broad canal, and the garden behind it is laid out in a symmetrical design up the gently ascending slope of the hill, around a clear central axis. A narrow linear feature divides the lower half of the garden from the upper half, in which we see a row of four rectangular plots with grape vines (?) growing in them, backing onto two long terraces. In the centre of the retaining wall at the back of the lower terrace there is an entrance into a subterranean room, possibly rebuilt since Evelyn’s day, modelled on ancient Roman baths. Set into the upper terrace is a semi-circular recess around a large pool. An avenue of trees is shown behind the recess, following what we know to be the route of the tunnel that Evelyn had cut into the hill under Silver Wood.
We know from Evelyn’s diary that the alcoved recess (technically called an exedra) and the tunnel into which it led, were evocations of the Grotto of Posilippo, with its long tunnel through the promontory between Naples and Pozzuoli, visited by him in 1645. Tradition then held this to have been accomplished in just one night by Virgil, the famous Roman poet whom mediaeval legend had recast as something of a magician. His tomb was also believed to lie close by.
Despite the bold layout of Albury Park’s quarter-mile long terraces and canal, which could be viewed as a statement of human ability to reshape nature, at the highest point and heart of the garden was the exedra; a place to sit, converse and reflect on such melancholic themes as the relative impermanence of human life and works, in contrast perhaps to the perpetually-renewed spring that flowed from the fountain at the pool’s edge. To describe Albury simply as a “formal garden” is, in my view, to ignore its subtle but powerful romantic undercurrent.
In my next post, I’ll present an illustrated walk-through, with some observations on how the garden changed over time.
Chambers, Douglas, 1981, “The Tomb in the landscape: John Evelyn’s Garden at Albury”, The Journal of Garden History.
Walmsley, R. Charles, 1976, The Risbridger Story, (including a plan of the John Evelyn Gardens) (privately printed pamphlet).
Darley, Gillian, 2006, “John Evelyn, Living for Ingenuity”, Yale University Press.