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Sayes Ct Park in the snow

Mulberry in snow, Sayes Court Park

This week’s Gardeners’ Question Time on BBC Radio 4 includes a six-minute feature on Sayes Court Garden. In it I speak to Matthew Wilson, in the rather cold and bleak setting of Sayes Court Park, about what the garden looked like in its seventeenth century heyday, and what might happen there in the future.

If you miss the programme tomorrow, it will be repeated at 14.00 on Sunday, and will be available to listen to on BBC iPlayer as well. The feature starts at 29.29 mins. into the programme.

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“Lads! Run away ! There’s a snake in the grass!”

An alarming welcome to a garden, you might think!  But so translates the Latin quotation that heads John Evelyn’s handwritten list of  classical mottoes displayed around Sayes Court Garden: “O pueri fugite hinc, latet anguis in herba.”  I can only speculate why he chose to use this particular line.  Was it a serious warning about the darker side of nature?  Or was it perhaps meant as a joke,  and the snake a harmless painted or sculpted one, a bit like this lovely one I spotted recently at Hampton Court Palace Flower show?

Anguis in herba

The quote is a line from Virgil’s Eclogues (3.93), uttered in an enigmatic singing match between two shepherds.  In the seventeenth century, anyone with a good education would have known where most of Evelyn’s quotations came from, and been able to appreciate their aptness for the situation in which he had placed them.  A walk around Sayes Court garden would therefore have been not just a horticultural experience but also a carefully thought-through literary, philosophical, and even spiritual one.

Alas!  There’s no sign of any such depth in the  latest tweaks to the masterplan for Convoys Wharf.  I listened with dismay to the smooth talk on their website about a “contemporary interpretation” of Sayes Court garden, which seems to translate as – wait for it – a couple of lines of trees leading out of the present park, and a few  lines in the pavement.  All this so-called “consultation,” but no-one among the developers actually listens.  So I’ll spell it out in simple terms. We want  an authentic SEVENTEENTH CENTURY RESTORATION of  Sayes Court Garden, not a minimalist 21st century “interpretation”  for goodness’ sake – there are plenty of those around already!

If, against the odds, my dream of a restoration were actually to happen, Evelyn’s mottoes would be part of it – with English translations to hand, perhaps on the backs.  The original mottoes would probably have been painted on wood, and I imagine them hanging from branches or perhaps mounted on walls or fences.  Their reincarnations could be combined with statues, particular planting, and so on.  Plenty of scope for ingenuity and art…

Here, in the order Evelyn wrote them, are some of the rest of the garden mottoes, with their references as I’ve managed to trace them, translations, and a few comments of my own in square brackets.

Perpetual spring

2. Hic ver perpetuum, varios hic flumina

circumfundit humus flores

(Virgil, Eclogue IX)

“Here is shining spring,

Here amid streams blow many-coloured flowers.”

[Now, this is more the sort of message one would expect to read!

This eclogue continues: “Here poplars hoary-tressed droop o’er the cave,

And lo! the limber vine plaits leafy bowers.

Hither! and let mad billows beat the strand.”

The mad billows of the nearby Deptford Strand?]

Spring by her flowers he knows

3.  Ver sibi flore notat

(Claudian, carmina minora 20)

“Spring by flowers he knows.”

This poem is about an old man who stayed close to home throughout his life.  Evelyn’s friend Abraham Cowley translated it and included it in his essay, “The dangers of an honest man in much company.”  The meaning of the line is that the wise person marks the passage of time by the changes in nature, not by man-made events (or contraptions, for that matter). The poem continues:

“He measures time by landmarks, and has found

For the whole day the dial of his ground.”

Since “dial” could mean a sundial, my bet is that this motto was on or near a sundial in the garden. We know there was one at the centre of the parterre.

17th c. Garden Party

4. Inter gestantium complexus, inter adorantium oscula, inter plausus admirantium: hic [?] vis quidem, at [?] gloriosa vita! – Nosegay.

(Claudius Batholomaeus Morisotus: Peruviana, published 1645)

“Among the embraces of  joyful people, among the kisses of the adoring, among the applause of admirers – this is violence indeed, but a famous life!”

The above translation is my own.  It’s provisional,  especially where I’m not sure of his handwriting. Evelyn has apparently adapted a passage from p. 319 of the above book, a Latin novel nominally set in Peru but actually, it seems, referring to political figures in France.  The second half of the motto recalls the last words of Julius Caesar as his assassins plunged at him: “Ista quidem vis est” “This is violence!”

“Nosegay”, written right after the motto, probably means that this motto was in his private garden, part of whose function was to provide flowers for making nosegays or posies.  If I read this right, it offers us an interesting insight into how he saw his own and his garden’s celebrity.

More garden mottoes next time.

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Many thanks to Frances Harris for kindly sending me photocopies of Evelyn’s motto lists.

Anyone who knows any more about 17th c. house and garden mottoes, or knows of any surviving examples or images of them, I’d love to hear from you.  Also from those whose Latin is less rusty than mine.

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Braving cold and squelchy weather and choppy waters on the Thames ferry, garden history enthusiasts packed the hall at the Linnaean Society and afterwards at the Master Shipwright’s house in Deptford yesterday to hear some enthralling talks on John Evelyn’s Sayes Court garden and discuss ideas for its restoration.

Eminent speakers included such experts as Gillian Darley, author of Evelyn biography “Living for ingenuity”, Frances Harris, who curated the Evelyn archive at the British Library and has written “Transformations of Love”, a fascinating account of Evelyn’s life and spiritual friendship with Margaret Godolphin; Professor Michael Hunter from Birkbeck College; Jan Woudstra from Sheffield University, Jonathan Lovie from the Garden History Society, and a recorded slide talk by Mark Laird of Harvard.

To mention just a few of the things that were discussed:  Gillian Darley introduced the day with an enjoyable overview of “Evelyn’s villa on the Thames”. Given Evelyn’s scientific interests and pioneering writings on the importance of clean air and earth, a disembodied but eloquent Mark Laird suggested that Sayes Court could be the home of an institute dedicated to exploring sustainable solutions to the social and ecological problems of modern urban life.   Jan Woudstra talked about the planting, and brought home to me just how densely Evelyn planted his grove – with five hundred odd trees there, he calculates they would only be about four or five feet apart.  Add to that the underplanting of bushes such as hazel, various fruits, and other greens, and this meant that after they grew to about three and a half metres high, they’d need to be thinned or else start to die off.  He described the garden as one primarily for horticultural experimentation rather than “showing off”.  He then raised the question of where exactly Evelyn had built the greenhouse that we know he had in later years.

Frances Harris thinks it was most probably adjoining the manor house. In my recent poring over the 1692 Gascoyne map (see my previous post) I noticed an extension at the back (north) end of the house, fronting onto the walled private/fountain garden, which we agreed in later conversation was the most likely candidate.  A greenhouse at that time was not what we mean by the term today (a glasshouse). It was more like a cross between an orangery and a gallery, somewhere to stroll in company, while admiring the exotic plants.

In her talk Frances showed some wonderful images she’s unearthed from the BL Evelyn archive, including a lovely sketch of the inside of his “elaboratorie” by Evelyn himself, as well as pages of intriguing mottoes drawn from classical literature, which once hung around the house and the garden. These seemed to be meant to help inspire a contemplative state of mind in the reader. Probably originally painted on wood, and mostly in Latin; I think something similar would be great to include a literary and artistic aspect in the potential restoration.

After milling around in the Queen’s wake for some time near the newly re-opened Cutty Sark at Greenwich, we made our slightly bedraggled way to Sayes Court Park, and then on to the Master Shipwright’s, where Tim Richardson of the GHS, garden columnist and writer, summed up the day’s talks and opened a discussion on possible directions for the restoration of the garden.

An exciting and thought-provoking day, and very well-attended thanks to the hard work of the organizers in the GHS, LPGT, and Deptford is…

When I first aired my idea of restoring Sayes Court garden three years ago, very few people seemed to be really aware of the importance of the place, and I could hardly foresee the tide of enthusiastic support that now seems to be rising in favour of the proposal.  This looks like it really might  become – to borrow a nice phrase originally describing the garden of John Beale, with whom Evelyn corresponded,  “no phantastical utopia, but a real place”.

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Spring is here, and with the first vivid green returning to the trees, there
are the first, tentative signs of a possible renaissance for Sayes Court! On the 25th of April the Garden History Society and London Parks and Gardens Trust are holding a Study Day on John Evelyn and Sayes Court, underlining the national importance of the site.  An exciting programme of talks is lined up.  For booking info, see the Garden History Society website. There will be a gathering for refreshments afterwards at the Master Shipwright’s house.

Sadly I’m afraid the planned site tour will only be able to view as much of Sayes Court as I have up to now, i.e. a great mound of spoil on top of the back-filled trench.  However, the MOL have at last put up a page on their website explaining how they went about locating the manor house. My SO, who did the Google Earth overlays for my earlier posts, has now double-checked this through a careful map regression using ArcGIS Explorer, and has confirmed that the nineteenth-century almshouse and pension office building did overlie the earlier manor house.

I’ll have more to say on the manor house, what we can discover from the documentary evidence about its interiors, and the alterations it saw while Evelyn lived there, in a later post.

Map of Sayes Court Garden in 1692

But what about changes to the garden?  Like all gardens, of course, it evolved over time.  The harsh winters and dry summers between 1683-5 took their toll of damage, and Evelyn, now in his sixties, commented to Pepys “’tis late for me to begin new paradises”, but nevertheless, he rose to the challenge. By 1692 when the above detailed colour map of the estate (copyright the British Library) was drawn up from Joel Gascoyne’s survey, Sayes Court was quite different from the way it had looked in the 1650’s, when Evelyn first laid it out.

The biggest change was the seemingly fourfold expansion of area given over to groves.  Across the Long Promenade opposite his first, originally highly intricately designed grove, another has taken the place of part of the Great Orchard.  The map shows the northern parts of the orchard that bordered the ornamental lake just as greened areas, with no indication of planting, so it is possible there were  just flat lawns of grass adjoining the lake, and no trees there, with the exception of a small, intriguing feature facing the northern axial entrance to his first grove.  There, trees are sketched in around what looks like a bower with an apsidal niche, which we can speculate might have housed a seat, a statue, or perhaps some instrument of scientific curiosity such as a “thermoscope” or weather-glass, as illustrated below in Evelyn’s  “Elysium Britannicum”.

The northern part of the Great Broomfield that previously lay outside the garden (beyond the orchard), has been incorporated into it, roughly partitioned into four square plots planted with trees, and quartered by paths.

As well as the greatly increased area of the groves, we can see that their internal layout has also drastically altered.  The first grove’s elaborate geometrical network of walks and “cabinets” has gone, replaced by a much simpler layout, with a simple circular opening at its heart.  Apart from the main central axis, the paths are mostly now curving and sinuous.  The next grove, overlying the Great Orchard, is also very much simpler in plan than the 1653 one had been, although still firmly geometrical.

Four new groves overlie the former Stallyard end of the Broomfield and the area described on the 1653 plan as an “extravagant area mangled by digging for gravel”. The simplification has gone even further in the eastern two. A single straight path leads to a large circular area in the centre of each grove. Marking the climax of the process of simplification are the two westernmost groves, perhaps the latest parts of the garden to be laid out.

Comparison of a detail from Evelyn's 1653 plan with a contemporary depiction of a mine entrance. From Subterranean Greenwich and Kent blog.

The southern one is an unbroken block of trees. The northern one incorporates the former gravel pit (and possible mine tunnels) in a very ingenious way, turning the old watering pond that had formed in the man-made depression into an extension of the 1650’s ornamental lake, approached by what looks like a steep descent of steps through the centre of the grove. Thus, it appears that Evelyn was one of the first people to turn an ex-industrial area into a pleasing garden feature! Further research, including archaeological excavation,  could potentially shed some light on Evelyn’s approach in this interesting area, although unfortunately, the houses of Barnes Terrace seem to have been built on the site of this western grove.

The south side of the garden also now extends into the former Great Broomfield, which has here  apparently been turned into grass lawns (known then as “plats”) and long avenues of trees. (But some caution is needed here – see final paragraph below).

Finally, the exquisite parterre has gone, replaced by a semicircular bowling green twice its width, straddling the former south end of the Long Promenade.  The diminutive banqueting house seems to have vanished, too. Instead, an exit accesses an avenue of trees that runs along the entire southern garden edge.

1683-4 planting scheme for the former parterre

We know that the Gascoyne survey map omits details of planting, such as the many fruit trees and bushes planted in the beds and on the walls surrounding the bowling-green, shown above in Evelyn’s own annotated sketch-plan of 1683-4. The Gascoyne map may also have omitted other details for which we don’t have any documentation, so I think it wise to avoid drawing too-firm conclusions, concerning how much Evelyn was either following or helping to form new garden fashions, based just on the evidence of this map. Even so, it gives us a tantalizing peek into Sayes Court garden in its later form, just a couple of years before Evelyn and his wife Mary packed up and moved to Wotton, the Evelyns’ family home in Surrey…where he carried on gardening!

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