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Wotton

Wotton was the first on my list of Evelyn-related places to visit this year, and last weekend I spent my birthday there.  The house is now a hotel and conference centre owned by the Principal Hayley group.

ImageIn Evelyn’s time the house was timber-framed, with a main block flanked by two wings projecting to the north enclosing a u-shaped court. The garden lay to the south, and this is where John Evelyn first experimented with Italian-style design from the 1640’s onwards. There he created a parterre with a central fountain and viewing terraces to either side.

Portico, grotto and mound

To the rear the natural hillside was terraced and fronted by a classical portico and grotto. The grotto was adorned with statues, of which only the Venus now remains.

Interior of grotto

The walls of the niches were encrusted with corals and shells that glittered behind gushing fountain-jets.  All of this was achieved thanks to a system of ingenious conduits that diverted the flow of the natural streams that run through the grounds.

The mound was planted with beech trees which have since vanished, along with apparently all other vestiges of the seventeenth century planting.

Winter

There is some uncertainty about the date of the statues of the four seasons that flank the central access stairway. They would certainly fit in with Evelyn’s theme here, derived from Epicurean philosophy, of the powers of nature (represented principally by Venus).  At any rate, all four seasons apart from Winter are now headless, which is rather sad.

I have to say that the evidence of these and other broken statues, fountains and benches and the detritus of wedding revels leave one feeling that this rare survival of seventeenth century garden design is not being properly cherished by the current owners.

Careful archaeological investigation might be able to recover the plan of the parterre. That area as well as the former orchard and kitchen garden to the east of the house are now just grassed over. If the neglected water features were  repaired, and the garden replanted in period style, the result would be truly stunning.  It would also, of course, attract many visitors.

Doorway to room where John Evelyn was probably born

The house itself has been much altered since the seventeenth century. Refaced in brick and extended in Victorian Gothic style, when it passed out of the family’s hands all its original furnishings and fittings went too.There remain a few beautiful Jacobean and Elizabethan doors, and interesting nooks and crannies.   However, all the old heart of the house is reserved for corporate training and conference events, as well as  wedding parties. Hotel guests stay in a modern accommodation wing, where the rooms are, frankly, bland and overpriced. It was next to impossible even to get to see any of the older rooms, as they were nearly all declared to be either in use or off-limits. Here, nevertheless, is a glimpse of the room where John Evelyn may have been born –  or could it be the one next to it?!

Room where John Evelyn may have been born

The best part of my brief time at Wotton was the midsummer dawn chorus, the like of which I’ve honestly never heard before in my life. Thanks no doubt to the lush woods behind the mound and the many trees and streams in the garden, the  variety, volume and sheer virtuosity of the birdsong was breath-taking. Looking out then from the first floor window onto the mound in the half-light, it seemed like one of those numinous fairy-hills in which legends tell that Arthur sleeps – except in this case, it must surely be the local equivalent of Venus…

The mound from the west

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All photos by the author except for the Evelyn sketch scanned by Jacqueline Banerjee, from http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/homes/33c.html For more information on the garden, see Small A. & Small C., John Evelyn and the Garden of Epicurus, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 60 (1997) pp. 194-214. For the basic historical facts on the house, see here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wotton_House,_Surrey and for details of the architectural features, see here http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1189814.

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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”.

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!

snowy manor garden

Over at Deptford is… right now you can read a seasonal post about the frost fairs held on the Thames during the “little ice age” of the seventeenth century.  Given what we now understand about the severity of the weather  he was up against, Evelyn’s achievements in his garden at Sayes Court are even more remarkable.

Sayes Court park in the snow

But even the hardiest gardener needs a break, and I can’t think of a better way to give you the flavor of Christmas at Sayes Court at the height of its glory than this wonderful passage from a letter written by Evelyn’s wife Mary to her cousin the playwright Samuel Tuke in the depths of winter 1670:

“You will not expect an account in this season of the yeare, how the flowers and greens prosper in the garden, since they are candying in the snow to be preserved for the spring and our delights, confined to the little wooden Roome.”

The room in question was their snug little wooden-panelled parlour.  If we could look in, over the shoulder of her cousin, we would see by the fire there “a philosopher, a woman, and a child, heapes of books our food and entertainment, silence our law, soe strictly observed that neither Dog nor Cat dares transgresse it. The crackling of the Ice and whistling winds are our Musica, which if continued long in the same quarter may possibly freese our witts as well as our penns, though Apollo were himself amongst us.”

Mary felt, she said, like a hibernating tortoise.

But in what a hibernaculum!  And with what delightful prospects of the spring!

Happy Christmas everyone.

Gathering echoes

Evelyn's plan of an artificial echo

I  gave a little talk two weekends back about the history of Sayes Court to a group of people who had gathered to air alternative, grass-root visions for the redevelopment of Convoys Wharf, including the restoration of John Evelyn’s seventeenth century garden

In it I tried to summarize Evelyn’s influence on some other contemporary gardens – though by no means all of the ones he had a hand in.  This is something I have already begun to explore here under the category “echoes of Evelyn”, starting with Groombridge Place.  When next spring comes, I’ll hopefully get the chance to get out and visit a few of these gardens, and post about them here in more depth

For now, though, here’s a snippet to whet the appetite!


1653 view of Wotton -click to enlarge

Evelyn directly influenced the design of numerous important seventeenth century gardens, beginning with his family’s ancestral home at Wotton.

Albury Park Terrace

Today the best visible example of his work, inspired in particular by the huge terraces of Palestrina outside Rome, is Albury Park in Surrey, where from 1662 he redesigned the Italianate garden for Henry Howard, to include a Yew Walk and fine terraces a quarter of a mile long, with a tunnel through the hill under Silver Wood. 

Howard also received his advice in 1663/4 on the design of a riverside public “spring garden” in Norwich, with many walks, a bowling green, pond, and of course, a “wilderness”.

Euston Hall

Evelyn also took an active role at Euston Hall in Suffolk, where in 1671 he designed a garden with a canal, straight rides and long avenues of elms and limes, and at Groombridge Place in Kent, where the central avenue of clipped yews has survived as well as most of the basic seventeenth century layout.  He also advised many other leading garden-owners of his day.

Groombridge Place

Sayes Court was, however, his greatest horticultural achievement, where he demonstrated the benefits of tree planting as prescribed in his best-known book “Sylva”, and experimented with innovative designs, plants, and  techniques such as growing on hotbeds and in greenhouses.

A second stage of excavation has now been underway on the site since the summer, and last week the Museum of London archaeologists acting on behalf of the developers of Convoys Wharf stated on the MOL website that they had “unearthed the remains of Sayes Court, a building with rich historical associations”, and “identified the plan of Sayes Court, as modified in the course of its history”.

Given these claims, those who attended the long-overdue site visit on Saturday hoping to actually see any evidence of Sayes Court will have been, as I was, very disappointed.  Both of the trenches have been completely backfilled. Indeed, had a group of concerned visitors not spontaneously gathered on top of the nearby spoil heap to discuss Sayes Court after the end of the official tour, it would have received not a single mention.

Why was no real opportunity given to the public to visit the site during the course of the actual excavation of the Manor House?  I say “real” opportunity, because I’ve since found out that one lucky person somehow heard of a chance to visit, and got to see the exposed building, in the company of Lewisham’s Archaeology officer.  Hardly a turn-out that reflects the level of concern and interest in the site.

Sketch of Sayes Court Manor House by John Evelyn.

Take a look at this sketch by John Evelyn of the Manor house in the seventeenth century.  This is the only known extant drawing of the original Sayes Court, and was added by him (sometime between 1698 and 1706) to a 1623 map of the dockyards and town of Deptford “Strond”. It shows the front of the Manor House, with three gables and a central entrance porch which we know from his writing Evelyn modified to include fashionable Doric columns.

Detail from 1753 plan of Deptford Dockyard.

To the right is a detail from Thomas Milton’s 1753 plan of the dockyard, which fortuitously also includes the footprint of the manor  house, proving that it must still have survived at that date, even though it was already being used as a poor house, as it was for almost a century afterwards.

Pension Office in 1869

Almshouses about 1900

Now take a look at this etching and photograph of the building that succeeded Sayes Court Manor House, used as the Pension Office, and then in 1869 (after the dockyard closed and W J Evelyn managed to buy back the site), turned into almshouses.  This is obviously quite a  different building, with a plan much altered from that of the original Manor House.  Most of the rear part of the house has vanished.   It would have been great to have seen what archaeological evidence there may have been for the last stages of the manor house, but all there is now is an almighty spoil-heap.

Light railway formerly in use at Deptford Dockyard

Recently an archaeologist contracted by the developer to excavate the Convoys wharf site claimed that the ground level around Sayes Court was lowered by a metre and a half when light railways were constructed during the First World War. This was described as “catastrophic” for the remains of  Evelyn’s gardens, of which “not a trace” was to be found.

Recreated 16th century garden at Kenilworth

If this were true, it would of course be very disappointing. However, even if few or no archaeological traces remained of the gardens, it would still be possible to restore them with a high level of authenticity using the detailed plans and planting lists that Evelyn has left us. If you look at the case of the Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth “restored” by English Heritage in 2009, this was achieved despite an almost total lack of archaeological remains.

The Kenilworth layout is based on only a verbal description, not an accurate plan, and the garden in question, a swift if lavish makeover for the queen’s visit, only existed for a very brief time – mere months. In comparison, Sayes Court garden, which existed for over half a century, holds a much stronger potential for actual restoration, rather than just “recreation” or “representation”. It is also far more significant in terms of its influence on garden design.

Segment from 1938 War Department plan.

On the other hand, I have yet to see any evidence to support this claim that no trace survives of the garden because of ground level reduction for railway lines. Take a look at this War Department plan from 1938. (Click on it to open up a larger version). The hachures show that the ground level is actually higher in the area of the light railway lines than the remnant adjoining eastern portions of the park, given to the public  by Evelyn’s descendant W J Evelyn in 1886. What’s more, the light railway lines themselves seem to follow the line of Evelyn’s long north-south gravelled walkway, which would make sense, as it would have provided a firm, ready-made foundation for them.  They skirt the western edges of his Grove, and they barely encroach on the northern part of the parterre.  So it makes no sense, as far as I can tell, to claim that the railways obliterated all evidence of Evelyn’s garden.


The segment of the 1938 War Department plan can be downloaded from https://productforums.google.com/forum/#!msg/gec-history-illustrated/SKQRekFJGqY/3D1jZ2tOg5sJ It will take a moment or two to download, then double click on it to open it in Google Earth (which must already be installed).

By dragging the slider on the left you can view the 1938 War Department plan superimposed over the modern landscape, and all degrees of transparency in between.

If you don’t have Google Earth, you can download it free at earth.google.co.uk