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Albury Park (1)

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.

Albury in 1645

Albury in 1645

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.

Albury Park in 1701

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.

Exedra and pool

Exedra and pool

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.

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Main Sources:

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.

Some good news, for a change! There is widespread excitement, reflected in the press and local blogs, that the World Monuments Fund, spurred on by the Council for British Archaeology , have included Sayes Court Garden (and Deptford dockyard) in their list of culturally-important sites that need to be protected for the future. It’s great that this international heritage watchdog has picked up on the significance of Sayes Court Garden. This adds even more weight to the gathering campaign for radical changes to Hutchison-Whampoa’s truly dreadful development plans.

Developer’s model of Convoys Wharf

Damaged mulberry, Sayes Ct. Park

Damaged mulberry, Sayes Ct. Park

I have been meaning for a while to post more about the ancient mulberry that first drew my attention to Sayes Court Park. Now it has sadly suffered some major damage, losing a bough that appears to have been rotting for some time. Reporting the loss, the South London Press calls it “Peter the Great’s tree”, predictably trotting out the persistent legend that it was planted by the Russian czar. As I’ve said before, I think this is extremely unlikely, because Peter showed little interest in anything other than wrecking the garden during his brief stay at Sayes Court. In my opinion, the legend probably conflates the lingering memory of Peter’s visit with the tree that had become emblematic of the lost garden.

The dubious association with Peter goes back at least to the mid-nineteenth century. Peter Cunningham’s 1850 Handbook of London refers to “a tree said to have been planted by Peter the Great when working in this country as a shipwright”. On the other hand, Nathan Dews’s History of Deptford, published in 1883, quotes an unnamed 1833 piece or book by one Alfred Davis that described (presumably the same?) tree as follows: ” A forlornly looking, ragged mulberry tree, standing at the bottom of Czar Street, was the last survivor of the thousands of arborets planted by “sylva” Evelyn in the gardens and grounds surrounding his residence at Deptford.” Planted by Evelyn, not by Peter the great, note! Of course, the present mulberry tree is not at the bottom of Czar Street, but of Sayes Court St., but perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much geographical exactness – it surely is the same tree that we see today?

Charlton House Mulberry planted 1608

Charlton House Mulberry planted 1608

Could the mulberry really have been part of Evelyn’s planting? There are two angles we can approach this question from: the age of the tree, and whether its siting matches what we know of the garden’s layout in the seventeenth century. If the tree’s annual growth rings could be counted, we’d know its exact age – but that would mean drilling into it, which I wouldn’t advocate! But if you compare its girth and general gnarled state with the mulberry at nearby Charlton House, known to date from 1608, it does seem to be of similar character.

As for its siting, it’s difficult to be certain, but It is most probably in the area known then as the Broomefield, a long plot of land that was only incorporated into the garden a few decades after Evelyn first laid it out.  (On the plans from the 1690’s it is divided into squares edged with unspecified trees).  Still, it is quite close to the part of the garden that formed the Great Orchard, which Evelyn says in the key to his 1653 plan he planted with “300 fruit trees of the best sorts mingled”. There could have been a mulberry among them, although I think they were then still not common. The only mulberry Evelyn specifically records is the one he notes as “the mulberry”, on the island in the lake, some distance away at the northern edge of the garden. So it is doubtful whether there were any others, at least at that time. Of course, the garden changed over the decades, and as I have already described, part of the Great Orchard by 1692 had become another grove, interlaced with geometric walks. However, if in this new grove Evelyn kept some or all of the by-then mature and thickly-planted fruit trees of the earlier orchard and merely inserted paths between them, it is possible our mulberry survives from then. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the mulberry was either in Evelyn’s garden, or is a direct descendant of one that was. Without a detailed planting record, though, the question must remain open.

New Coal Exchange floor design

New Coal Exchange floor design

Once the rest of the garden had gone, a single surviving tree would inevitably become a potent reminder of what had been lost, gradually accruing greater poignancy as the site around it became more and more ravaged by development. Dews mentions that in his time a fragment of the mulberry was in the custody of Hastings Hicks, the Evelyns’ agent at their estate office on Evelyn St. Were people helping themselves to bits of the old tree as souvenirs, or had parts of it started to rot and drop off even back then?

The scavenging went on even at the highest level: Dews and Cunningham both noted that a piece of the tree was taken and used as part of the design of the main floor of the New Coal Exchange, constructed between 1847 to 1849 in Lower Thames Street. It formed the blade of the dagger in the city of London’s shield. Unfortunately, there is no record of what happened to it when the New Coal Exchange, despite being Grade II listed, was demolished in 1962 in order to widen the road.

New Coal Exchange under demolition

New Coal Exchange under demolition

In order to put this tree-reverence business in perspective, a short digression is hopefully excusable here. Imbuing trees with special significance as embodying the spirit of a place, a powerful person such as a king, or even a whole tribe, goes back a long way in our traditions. In neighbouring Celtic Gaul they called such a sacred tree a bile. A grove of them was termed a nemeton in both countries. Oak trees in particular were objects of veneration, and when a peoples’ sacred oak died or was destroyed, their strength was believed to go with it. “Merlin’s Oak” in Carmarthen is a good example of this. I also think the upended and fenced-in oak tree discovered at Seahenge might once have represented a group of people who those who constructed it had defeated, or wished to control.

Dead mulberry sapling, Sayes Ct. Park

So, regardless of who actually planted it, the mulberry tree has become a fitting symbol of Sayes Court Garden and John Evelyn. Several older readers of this blog have commented on their fond childhood memories of tasting fruit from the tree, and there is clearly a strong affection for it among those who live or have lived in Deptford. If the Deptford High St anchor symbolizes the area’s dockland and maritime past, you could argue that the Sayes Court mulberry tree is an icon of its land-based history. Despite the press headline declaring that the mulberry “faces the chop” and can’t be saved, with some well-deserved tlc, it surely can. Even so, with an eye to the future, and since it is easy to propagate mulberries, Lewisham Council really should see to that this autumn. Oh, and let’s hope they look after any cuttings better than the one planted in the adjoining border that died of neglect recently…

Anyone hoping to see substantial changes to Hutchison Whampoa’s masterplan at last week’s consultation must have been sorely disappointed.  Amid a plethora of rhetorical nods to the site’s heritage,  the only real movement  regarding Sayes Court is their proposal to display rather than simply bury the part of the manor house that was excavated last year.  Facilely dubbed the “John Evelyn Centre”,  it was shown on the developers’ model as a two storey glassed-over space in the corner of a six storey hotel.   While I welcome the idea of keeping the manor house remains open to public view,  I must point out that what we would be seeing is not exactly the home of John Evelyn. The actual seventeenth century manor house  of John Evelyn occupied a much larger area than has been excavated up to now.  ( The site deserves much more extensive archaeological investigation, but whether this will happen I doubt). The  building whose ground floor walls and floors we would see (the cellars may be earlier) was used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a workhouse, a depot for deporting people to Australia, and then an army HQ.

Spring sundial, Groombridge Place

Spring sundial, Groombridge Place

As for the garden itself, there is no real progress.  The developers’ heritage spokesperson (whose name I’m afraid I didn’t get) told me that they regard restoration of any part of the garden as “infeasible”.  When asked why, he gave two reasons. The first was  that the amount of ground  required would be too great, and would lead to greater density in the buildings.  I queried this apparently paradoxical statement, and was informed that, the prime consideration being to fit in 3,500 residential units, the loss of space on the ground to gardens would be compensated for by higher or more densely-packed buildings.  In other words, they are determined to squeeze in as many flats as possible to get the maximum profit from the site, and this is apparently non-negotiable.  Therefore, they are unwilling to earmark any meaningful area of ground for Sayes Court Garden.  As far as I can see, this objection is based on nothing more than the cupidity of investors  – a certain Rupert Murdoch, let’s recall, among them.

The second reason I was given for a restoration being infeasible was based on two assertions: 1)  John Evelyn was primarily an experimenter who was always trying out new ideas. 2) His garden at Sayes Court changed through time. Therefore, claimed my informant, some sort of “contemporary interpretation” of Evelyn’s work would be a more suitable tribute.

"Sculpture" supposedly evoking Deptford's naval heritage

“Sculpture” supposedly evoking Deptford’s naval heritage

There are so many holes in this line of argument that I hardly know where to start!  To briefly answer the first point: if someone is a great experimenter, what kind of tribute is it to consign their most famous and characteristic experiment (i.e. the garden) to oblivion?  Secondly, all gardens, like everything else, change through time – but this is hardly reason not even to try to commemorate and celebrate their unique, defining moments.

A “contemporary interpretation” is just a glib cop-out.  It opens the way to generic mediocrity, too much of what we’ve been saddled with already.  I shudder to think what this approach, which seems to  devalue the whole notion of garden restoration,  could lead to – a couple of lines of saplings dwarfed on either side by towering buildings, to represent the avenues of Sayes Court Garden?  Pavement patterns to convey the organic intricacy of the Grove?  A few meagre planting-beds to flag up the parterre?

A true restoration of Sayes Court Garden wouldn’t be cheap. It wouldn’t be the easiest, one-size-fits-all option.  But it is what the spirit of this place demands.  And it is feasible.

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.

The Vocal Garden

Because we still have John Evelyn’s notes of the inscriptions or mottoes that he put up around Sayes Court, (see previous post) it is as if we can still hear him suggesting to us how to “read” his garden. Given the disappearance of the garden itself, and the long-deceased status of its maker, I find this wonderful, if slightly eerie! But, to continue…

Dendrologia frontispiece

5. “Neque is qui rigat, neque is qui plantat est aliquid, sed deus qui dat incrementum.” “Neither he who waters nor he who plants is anything, but [only] god who gives growth.” Who really creates the glory of a garden? How absurd is the egotistical designer’s notion that the credit is all theirs, when the reality of birth and development is far more complex, interdependent, and mysterious?

This quote from the New Testament (1 Corinthians,3) features in the frontispiece illustration to “Dendrologia, Dodona’s Grove or the Vocall Forrest” by the Anglo-Welsh writer James Howell, published in 1640.

Hydra

6. “Saepe etiam [etenim] occuluit picta sese Hydra sub herba.” “Often has the serpent [=hydra] lain hid beneath the coloured grass.” Originally from one of Horace’s epistles (15?), this is quoted in Robert Burton’s (1638) “The Anatomy of Melancholy”, in a passage on jealousy and deceit. Similar to the snake in the grass (see previous post), does it perhaps hint that Evelyn had learnt, the hard way, to look deeper than fair appearances in choosing who to trust?

7. “Quis non Epicurum suspicit, exigui laetum plantaribus horti?” “Who does not admire Epicurus, happy with the young saplings of his tiny garden?” Juvenal (13, 123). Epicurus bought a piece of land on the outskirts of Athens where he created a renowned garden in which for many years he contemplated and discussed philosophy. Evelyn quotes this line in his “Directions for the Gardener” (1686), and it’s also found in a piece (sermon xv) by Jeremy Taylor, Evelyn’s spiritual mentor. My guess is this motto relates to the Grove, which seems to have been very densely-planted for such a modest area.

Garden of Loreius Tiburtinus, Pompeii

8. “Redimitur floribus annus.” “The year is encircled with flowers.” This motto is seen in the title-page illustration to G.B. Ferrari’s De florum cultura libri iv, published c. 1633, that depicts Flora and maidens garlanding and crowning a herm with flowers.

Flora

9. “Hic ver assiduum, meliusquam carmina, flores/ inscribant oculis tu lege, non manibus.” “Here the busy spring inscribes her flowers, better than songs – read them with your eyes, not your hands!” “The Compleat Florist”, an English translation of the seventeenth century book “Le Jardinier Solitaire” by Louis Liger d’Auxerre, p. 145, says that the gardener should courteously satisfy the curiosity of those who wish to see his flowers, but advises that he ought to have these two verses engraved over his garden door, in order to discourage visitors from roughly handling or even stealing his plants. Interesting to know that Evelyn felt this advice was apt. Perhaps it was sited near the parterre, which would have been full of expensive blooms, especially in spring? In any case, I think it is much nicer than peremptory modern “Keep off” or “Do not touch” signs.

10. “Cui hortus renidet floribus dotatus, animumque nullis dotibus/Excultum squalere tenet (?), praepostere facit.” “He acts preposterously, who has a splendid garden endowed with flowers but whose mind neglects to cultivate any gifts.” This echoes a passage of Erasmus (in his Colloques) that was paraphrased in verse as: ” whose garden is all grac’d with flowers sweet, His soul meanwhile being impolite, is far from doing what is meet.” This I view as a kind of “note-to-self” that was perhaps also meant to impress devout Anglican visitors such as Jeremy Taylor. It hints at Evelyn’s niggling sense of unease at putting so much of his energy into his garden instead of more conventional Christian self-improvement. Subtly solicited though they may have been, I think his guests’ responses to this motto would have been heart-felt and genuine. Here, Evelyn invites his thinking visitor into a dialogue. Is time spent working or walking in gardens, less useful than study? Is there any psychological or spiritual benefit in gardening?

“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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